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COVID-19 remote learning hurdles for students with disabilities

Va Sonyka and Marie Lamy / Khmer Times Share:
Children participate in a drawing activity in the classroom. KT/Tep Sony

With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping through nations worldwide, the Kingdom has not been spared, reporting over 100 cases as of yesterday. As Cambodia scrambles to prevent another wave of infections, the government decided to shutter schools nationwide – a drastic measure that matches the scale of the crisis.

To ensure the continuity of learning, the Education Ministry launched online learning courses on several platforms such as the ministry’s official website, Zoom, Google Classroom, YouTube and Facebook. In light of such measures, Khmer Times’ Va Sonyka and Marie Lamy find out how students with disabilities are coping with the unprecedented move to e-Learning.

Since the pandemic struck the Kingdom, Samnang’s mother has repeatedly told him his school is closed. Nevertheless, like clockwork, Samnang wakes up at 6.30am, wears his uniform and laces his school shoes as he sets off for school.

Diagnosed with autism, 7-year-old Samnang stands in front of the school gate, waiting for it to open, seemingly unaware of the coronavirus which has sent everyone scuttling to the confines of their homes.

Samnang is only one of the many children with disabilities who are struggling with the sudden school closures spurred by fears over the deadly pandemic.

While governments across the world enforce effective measures necessary to prevent the spread of the disease, Cambodia moved to temporarily suspend academic institutions to safeguard the younger generation.

Despite the intent, the measure seems to have created a bigger gap in education access. While students from rural or remote areas have aired concerns about limited internet access, little has been said about the students with disabilities.

Actions from the governmentAs of last year, the number of disabled students in the country stands at 60, 284, as cited at the official launching ceremony of the National Disability Strategic Plan late last year.

In the Kingdom, children with psychiatric, learning or physical disabilities are enrolled in public institutions, such as the Krousar Thmey, and non- profit organisations that aim to provide assistance for the marginalised.

Speaking to Khmer Times, the Education Ministry spokesman Dy Kamboly said: “The ministry seeks to provide equal access to education to all students, including those with disabilities.”

As such, Mr Kamboly said the ministry has set up online learning courses which cater to the needs of every child to facilitate learning amid the nationwide school closures.

“We are particularly attentive to children with visual disabilities. The e-Learning platform for them is different. The ministry is making sure they receive equal access to education as students with no disabilities,” he said, before noting satisfaction with the results of the ministry’s distance learning initiative.

He adds their e-Learning capacities may be expanded with the generosity of various institutions including NGOs and the private sector.

NGO’s feedbackIn contrast, some NGOs who are not fully equipped to move to e-Learning are struggling to adjust to the impact of the pandemic. One of these is Phnom Penh’s Rabbit School, which has educated students with learning disabilities for over 20 years.

“We have wanted to implement online teaching from before. However, such a teaching method is new for most of our teachers,” said Hun Touch, the headteacher of the school which has approximately 700 students.

The school, said Mr Touch, was not prepared for the pandemic. Financial and technical support was not enough to give the school a leg up in its response toward the virus. Teachers were not trained as to how to facilitate online teaching and others do not have a stable internet connection to conduct the classes.

In spite of the obstacles, the school has connected with the students’ parents as a workaround. Based on the disability of the child, teachers can either teach personally through Facebook Messenger app or provide learning materials to the parents, who shall then use it to teach their children.

So far, the school has produced five educational videos for the students. However, Mr Touch admits the method of instruction is not as effective as in the classroom. Some students require more attention, including the presence of a teacher who can readily help them in their learning process.

The limited supply of learning materials has also been a recurring problem. While the school has used such materials to teach their students in the classroom, Mr Touch said they cannot afford to distribute these materials to every student.

In addition, parents have raised difficulties in balancing their time between working and personally overseeing their children’s education, with most of them depending on NGOs and other institutions for the provision of inclusive education.

“If the COVID-19 persists, students with disabilities will be one of the most disadvantaged,” said Mr Touch.

In the light of the pandemic, the International Disability Alliance provided a series of recommendation to ensure resources are available for students with disabilities. With the support of the WHO, the IDA director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus via Twitter said: “#COVID19 poses a global threat & people with #disability must not be left behind in the response. All people need to be protected, regardless of whether or not they experience disability.”

Ros Chanborith, DRR and CCA Manager of NGO Save the Children Cambodia, said: “Children with disabilities often face multiple challenges to access in inclusive education, which is exacerbated during times of crisis.”

He also added in Cambodia, 57 percent of children with disabilities are not enrolled in proper schools, further reinforcing a deeper gap in learning opportunities.

“If they do attend school, the data shows that children with disabilities struggle to learn and complete their education. Seventy-three percent of Cambodian children without disability, aged between 14 and 16, have completed primary education, compared to only 44 percent of their peers with a disability,” he said.

As the Kingdom grapples with the pandemic, school closures which are meant to aid the general population have unintentionally edged out students already struggling with disabilities – a struggle which may be more burdensome as the Ministry of Education on April 18 announced the extension of school suspension in a bid to curb coronavirus risks.

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