Ghana confirmed its first case of coronavirus on the 12 March 2020 and has since reported a total of over 9,460 infected cases with 44 deaths and a little over 3,500 recoveries.

In a bid to keep the rapidly spreading virus at bay, the government of Ghana announced a series of sweeping measures including; banning mass gatherings, shutting down all borders, partial lockdown of some regions, and closing down schools.

The challenge for me is the reality of keeping the special needs children at home without providing the necessary support and intervention. Even with children without needs, it’s a daunting task for parents to keep up to what is confronting all of us.

Unfortunately, the world autism month in April this year did not fall on a good note. Rather than creating more awareness and celebrating the occasion, it has brought a lot of challenges to these groups of people and their families. 

Various forms of virtual learning programs for keeping students fully engaged, including special needs children have been on-going for most regular schools and special needs centers across the country.

My main focus is on the extreme cases we have in our schools and special needs centers and how to continue supporting them during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. My other concern has been an effective way to ensure that they are adequately given equal attention as compared to children without needs.

Some of us were worried we may not have the skills to implement a virtual learning program for our students with special needs because traditionally we’ve been working directly with them over the years.

Certainly, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have limitations in their social communication, sensory, attention deficit, flexibility, etc. that might impede our effort of going exclusively virtual.

The reality of the situation is that we need to reallocate more resources to find ways to continue providing intervention programs for these amazing children.

Radically, well-meaning and endowed institutions including Al- Rayan International School (ARIS) where I work, began to strategize by mobilizing its human and technical resources and took full opportunity of the situation and still provides the necessary support to its students.

Less to be said about the public schools in the country the better. Interestingly, some media houses including the government’s own Ghana Learning Television (GL-TV) are running educational programs from kindergarten to the secondary school level in all subjects.

The only accommodation made in these educational programs is sign language for the hearing impaired. One would have thought that there would be some provision made for special needs. This clearly exposes the wide gap in Ghana’s educational system.

We have a whole inclusive education policy in Ghana that spelled out ‘Education for all’. Education in Ghana according to the 1992 constitution is a right for all citizens, including children with special needs.

I was happy that ARIS Personalized Learning Department (PLD) students were not left out of the equation, knowing very well that it’s going to be a challenging venture considering the kind of support most of our students require.

The system in Al- Rayan International School (ARIS) is well coordinated and a lot of collaboration between the special needs department, the teachers and parents so that no student is left behind.

Special attention and support are provided to all the special needs students in the department through breakout one-on-one sessions and ensuring that their Personalized Learning Plans (PLP) targets are met.

The students have the opportunity to join their respective classes on zoom/google classroom and interact with their teachers and peers. Teachers continue to guarantee differentiated lessons to involve all students with learning difficulty including the special needs students.

Tasks are also differentiated and other forms of support are also given by the teachers and Personalized learning Department (PLD) virtually, as it would have been given in a regular school session.

The strict adherence feedback systems from daily groups and individual sessions’ reflections, as well as weekly summary and zoom meetings to review all cases help the team to be on top of the program even though we continue to encounter a few challenges.

Most parents have been thrown into a quagmire without prior training of virtual learning programs and how feasible would that even be for most children with special needs.

Generally, it’s expected that most parents with special needs children have to abandon everything to practically support their kids during virtual learning. This has been so challenging for most parents.

There are situations where video and sound had to be muted to avoid others seeing the inattentiveness, noncompliance, and in the worst case scenarios the frustrations the parents are going through having to constantly prompt the children to stay focused.

Some of the parents shared with me instances where they had to leave the meeting just because the children weren’t complying. Some parents had to call the teacher and therapist later to explain why they had to leave the group sessions unceremoniously, or perhaps end the one-on-one sessions.

Special education practitioners have been trained to be adoptive to all that they do because all our students are uniquely different and have varied conditions. Children with special needs respond differently to interventions, what may work for child X may not work for child Y.

We need to find ways to effectively collaborate more with all the stakeholders especially the teachers and knowing that other supporting facilitators, therapists, and parents can’t do this all alone.

Covid-19 has come to change the status quo and the way we do things must also change. Teletherapy and all other relevant technological resources have come to stay. Teachers, therapists, facilitators, caregivers, and parents should embrace them even after Covid-19.

Challenges during Covid-19 and Virtual Learning

Parenting has become so challenging during the era of Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s mandatory lockdown directives. Parents have this big balancing act of responsibility of entertaining and educating their kids, including working and managing their homes. This has become a huge demand across most parents, especially when it involves the special needs child.

There are deadly consequences of keeping the special needs child at home without consistent therapy programs in addressing those challenges. Social and physical distancing may be extremely difficult for parents with children with special needs, especially when the special needs child is not independent. However, we need to find other alternatives in order to keep everyone safe.

Before the closure of schools, there wasn’t any opportunity to even prepare the special needs child of what is currently happening. Most of them are clueless about what’s going on and sudden change of routine.

It will take time for a child with autism to understand why he/she is not going to school or have his regular therapy sessions canceled. Suddenly, the routine has changed and it’s justifiable and enough grounds to trigger anxiety, resulting in behavior concerns at home. Perhaps, a simple social story to explain the situation to them could help.

Because of unpreparedness on the part of the parents for this closure of schools, parents are overwhelmed with the challenges of managing their kids. Parents are mandated now to do the work of four people in the process when its special needs are related. This indeed can be very stressful for everyone at home.

Besides, those who have the opportunity of virtually engaged are sometimes over-stimulated and distracted using the iPad or laptops which hitherto divert attention and interest.

Some children find it difficult to focus or follow instructions on zoom. In some cases, they rather pay attention to themselves and make faces because they can see themselves in the camera. Other factors include the home environment.

Parents will once a while throw in something to engage their kids even after the student has completed his virtual lessons, however, this can’t be the same compared to the kind of support the same students receive from the school environment, special needs centers and regular home programs. The situation gets so difficult when parents have to work from home.

Benefits – Covid -19 as a wake up call to the family

Even though the coronavirus pandemic raised its head and brought unexpected hardships, one has to take advantage to see some of the benefits and fully take advantage of it. An opportunity for parents to get to know their kids inside and out. 

Most busy parents wouldn’t have time to meet the children’s therapist and teachers to discuss their progress. Others will find reading and following up with their reports and implementing recommendations challenging because they are busy.

Parents who will make the effort to work with their children will appreciate how their children learn especially when implementing some suggested strategies adopted to achieve the learning outcomes.

Special needs parents are considered the best therapist for their own children.  Working closely with parents will help them, believing that they have a huge responsibility, their cooperation and involvement is so crucial for the total progress of the child. When the parents are empowered and supported to implement some of the strategies, it will escalate the progress of the child.

Those who haven’t had the chance to work closely with their special needs children are beginning to take advantage of the situation to make the best out of it. Parents have been receiving daily updates and strategies for tasks assigned to their kids by their friends, teachers, and therapist.

Siblings of the children with special needs equally have the same opportunity to support their parents in this process. There are so many things they can do including taking them out for a walk, playing together, and supporting them with self-help skills.

Engaging the children with autism in the daily home routine such as washing, cleaning, cooking, etc. would keep them busy which in itself is a learning experience for these children.

Suggested solutions during Covid-19 and virtual learning

Communication is a big task. Teachers, therapists and all service providers have to set up huge communication plans with their parents to keep everybody on the same page. 

There are several modes of communication and one has to explore the best option convenient for all concerned parents.  Some parents prefer WhatsApp messages to emails or a simple phone call or text message to remind them of what needs to be done.

When that is sorted out, timing is very crucial for the facilitators or therapist to call in and effectively communicate with parents. Remember that there is so much happening at home and for parents to understand and implement tasks assigned, one would want the full attention of the parents for effective support and learning outcomes.

Alternatively, short demonstrative videos can be sent to parents so that they can at their own convenient time watch and take their children through the activities. It’s important for parents to give honest and sincere feedback to their teachers and therapist after the session for obvious reasons.

During virtual learning programs, while technology may be a distraction to some children with special needs, there are equally excellent Apps and technology tools parents and therapists may explore their benefits. We should also be mindful of excessive and uncontrolled technology and screen time, including watching TV but rather create more space for direct interactive sessions at home.

Keeping a well-defined schedule for special needs at home is one of the surest ways to manage and calm everyone down. Parents can create family time with their children to come up with a clear routine factoring in the child with special needs.

At the end of the week, the family can come together and dispassionately and honestly review and update the plans. The children will take ownership of the plan and that will strengthen the relationship with their children. There’s a whole vast amount of knowledge individual parents have that they could share with their kids. Covid-19 has given parents that perfect opportunity to slow down and spend some quality time with their children.

Some accommodation should be made for coaches, therapists and facilitators to periodically visit the home of the concerned students and effectively support parents. This will go a long way to keep the targets afloat without compromising on safety guidelines.

For instance, speech therapists may want to consider the transparent face shield instead of the regular face mask, wearing gloves, and ensuring some level of social distance during the session. Besides, parents will also be helped to replicate some of the activities to enhance support to achieve the expected result.

Parents certainly need some respite care to reduce the frustrations they go through every day. Calming anxiety doesn’t mean ignoring problems. It’s about finding your balance and well-being so you can cope well.

This eventually would help parents to recharge and would give effective support to their kids. Parents should, therefore, carry their well-being along with children. Talk to them about the daily structure and how to manage their stress. Their break from schoolwork or sessions, relax and connect with each other.

While using technology may be distracting for some children during virtual learning programs, there are equally excellent Apps and tech tools that may be of great help to others. Parents can explore these resources to their benefits taken into consideration the needs of the child.

It’s about time parents get involved in their children’s therapy programs. Apart from professional intervention programs put together by different therapists, there are numerous online courses that can empower parents to augment what other professionals are providing. Whether COVID-19 or not parents would have some control and not be inundated with the issues concerning their children.

Undoubtedly, parenting special needs children comes with its emotional, psychological and societal stigma. Strong parents support groups are necessary to mitigate the suffering of parents. Covid-19 has come to change the status quo. It has affected everything including the support system for children with special needs.

We should start considering the way we do things now and adjust accordingly, believing that after Covid-19 every parent with special needs children, teachers, therapists, caregivers, inclusive schools, and special needs centers will be better off collaborating more with all stakeholders and providing effective intervention programs for all.

Once we all agree that other coronavirus ‘front lines’ are our dozen brave parents with special needs children across the world. The question is if a child with autism is infected with Covid-19 and he or she has to be quarantined.

What do we do? Let’s all think about it.

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The writer, Emmanuel Ntow Nyarko is the CEO of ENNY Foundation and also a Consultant at ARIS PLD, a Special Needs Interventionist.