JEDDAH: Almost a year has passed since more than 6 million students in Saudi Arabia were sent home from school at the start of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.
The shift to distance learning has been difficult for all children worldwide; however, it posed particular challenges for children with special needs, their families and their teachers.
According to the Saudi Education Ministry’s numbers in 2019, there are more than 76,000 special needs students in the Kingdom. These students are eligible for special education services designed to help them succeed in school. However, those services are not always easily transferred to distance learning or even in-person learning with social distancing.
“While the pandemic has definitely had an impact on everyone, face-to-face learning or direct therapeutic services are very important for special needs and disabled children,” Dr. Faisal Al-Nemary, chief operating officer at the Autism Center of Excellence (ACE), told Arab News.
Despite the challenges, the sudden shift to virtual education had a bright side too, as more parents are involved in their children’s educational process, and they are more aware of their role in helping their children improve their skills, said Al-Nemary, who is an adviser to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development on autism and disability-related issues.
“This is very important,” he said. “In the past, it used to be very difficult to get the family involved in the educational and therapy process. However, due to this urgent situation where children are no longer spending around 20 hours at school per week, parents have no choice but to get involved.
“We should capitalize in these challenging times by keeping the family more involved, because we know that the more the family
is involved, the greater the outcomes are.”
According to a vox pop conducted by Arab News, four out of seven parents with special needs children said that their experience with virtual education was bad and their children’s performance has declined, while two said it was good and one said it was very good.
These children had a range of conditions, including learning difficulties, hearing impairment, intellectual disability and behavioral disorders.
However, five parents said that the experience made them more aware of their child’s abilities and condition, and three agreed that they became more involved in their child’s educational process.
The parents spoke about challenges, including the students’ struggle to understand and do their homework and deal with their devices, as well as their inability to concentrate on lessons.
Um Nurah Al-Mutiri, from Madinah, said her fifth-grade daughter with intellectual disability struggles to understand her teacher. “She is able to understand only when she can read her teacher’s gestures and her mouth movements,” she told Arab News.
Um Nurah does not oppose partial dependence on virtual learning, but she thinks it doesn’t work yet for students like her daughter.
Ahmad Al-Harbu from Qassim, who has a son with a similar condition, agreed that virtual education services are not ready yet for special needs students. He was one of the four parents who said that virtual education was completely ineffective for these students.
“Not all parents like to be involved much,” said Al-Nemary. “These children need attention and sometimes it can be more challenging for parents because they have other responsibilities.”
Al-Nemary believes that it is possible to provide a part of education or rehabilitation services virtually, but that this should not be the only medium of service provision.
“This is simply because these students, compared to typically developing children, need more attention than others, they need someone to talk to them and show them things, support them physically in doing certain activities and develop certain skills,” he said.
Special education teachers gave more positive feedback than parents about their experience with virtual education, with seven out of 15 teachers saying that their experience with students was good, two said it was very good, four said it was okay, while two said it was useless.
We should capitalize in these challenging times by keeping the family more involved, because we know that the more the family is involved, the greater the outcomes are.
Dr. Faisal Al-Nemary, chief operating officer at the Autism Center of Excellence
The majority of those who said it was a good experience work with primary school students with hearing impairment and speech disabilities, while the two who said it was useless work with primary school students with intellectual disabilities.
Munirah Al-Rumaih, a primary school teacher from Qassim, said the pros and cons from virtual education are equal. “Evaluating the results will take time,” she said. “My experience is fairly good so far.”
Al-Rumaih said her classroom was not fully equipped before the pandemic; therefore distant learning allowed her to utilize technology and more exciting content in her teaching, which she had not been able to do before.
“I have a shy student who wasn’t confident interacting in the classroom because of her speech impairment, but with distant learning she gained confidence and is participating in the virtual classroom a lot more,” she said.
She noted that differences between students at school were individual differences, while in distance learning, it is more about differences between families. “I hope teachers take that into account and consider each family’s circumstances.”
Some teachers spoke about the lack of interactive educational content available in Arabic for special needs students, low-income families’ need for support to get their children the right devices, the system’s lack of flexibility and the ministry’s unnecessary requirements.
Al-Nemary said there are two models of education in such challenging times, the completely virtual model and the hybrid approach. In the latter, children attend school once or twice a week, which he thought was more efficient.
In the former, he said, “parents must receive training on how to teach and train their kids in the home environment and develop their skills.”
“Some students might benefit from the virtual model, but I believe the majority of students with disabilities will benefit more from the hybrid model in these challenging times,” he said.
The hybrid model is applied at ACE , and Al-Nemary believes it has proved effective.
“Families come and attend one-hour sessions for 12 weeks and get the chance to learn how to teach their kids certain skills, such as communication, language, play and independence,” he said.
The feedback from families was positive. “We had some success stories from parents who really liked what we did, they saw that it was very enlightening for them compared to when their kids were attending the centre and they weren’t involved,” he said.
He noted that the hybrid model is flexible. “Based on each child’s characteristics and needs, we can determine who should get more out of which,” he said. “For example, some students might need 50 percent virtual and 50 percent face-to-face, other students might need 30 to 70 percent or vice versa.”
Al-Nemary anticipates an increase in educational and therapeutic services via the hybrid model, even after the pandemic is brought under control.
“It is a very effective model because it is cost-effective; we can reach those who live in areas that do not have access to specialists and experts,” he said.