The instability brought about by the covid-19 pandemic has in significant ways compromised the schooling career and academic progress of children with special education needs. 

THE SHOW GOES ON: With most learners back in the classroom, both children and teachers are forced to adapt to the covid-19 rules. Photo: Akhona Matshoba

The documents pinned neatly to a maroon notice board on the wall behind her form a backdrop that indicates this school principal runs an orderly ship.  

Even though our interaction is on a virtual platform and I have only a headshot view of Ansonette KraucampI can tell she is fond of her job.  This is evident in the way her eyes light up when she gets excited about a question. Her smile accentuates the wrinkles that have formed around the corners of her eyes. Her passion for her work shows in the way she brushes back her pixiecut hair when she is frustrated. 

Kraucamp became the principal at Casa do Sol, a special education needs (SEN) school in Randburg, a suburb north of Johannesburgin April 2020, just weeks after the lockdown due to covid-18 was imposed in South AfricaWith a wry smile, she refers to herself as a ‘corona baby’’ because of her ill-timed commencement of the position. The school caters to children between the ages of six and 21 years old who have intellectual impairments. 

The new normal

In October, more than two months since the last national school closures took place, and with South African schools back in session, Kraucamp boasts about how well she believes her learners are adapting to their new normal’’: “They are superstars,” she says. She proudly shows me a small sanitiser bottle attached securely to a lanyard slung around her neck.  This bottle, she says, is given to all the senior learners at her school who understand what sanitiser is and how it is to be used.  

The return to school in August was, however, not without its challenges. Kraucamp notes that there are some children, especially those with autism, who are still struggling to adjust. She says some kids are having trouble with wearing a mask. She refers to one of her learners, whom she calls “little Thapelo”, who cannot wear a mask for long periods. She also speaks about another learner who wants to wear only surgical masks and not cloth ones. She says although understanding what each child is comfortable with involves a lot of “trial and error”, operations at the school continue. 

CAPTAIN OF THE SHIP: Despite the chaos caused by the covid-19 pandemic, the newly appointed principal aims to lead the school with love and compassion. Photo: Akhona Matshoba.

According to Kraucamp, most of her learners have returned to school and only about 19 out of almost 200 remain at home, because they have life-threatening comorbidities. Their parents have to decide between possibly risking their children’s lives by sending them to school to receive a proper education, or keeping them at home, where they are safe. Choosing the latter means some parents may have to sacrifice their children’s academic progress. One parent faced with this decision is Ronelle Kelly (50) who is Joshua Kelly’s mother. Joshua (17) is a grade nine learner at Casa do Sol who has Down’s syndrome and chronic asthma. 

The principal says although learners such as Joshua remain at home, they can still join virtual classes. “Some of the kids [with] comorbidities or lockdown learning will be part of the class via MS teams,” Kraucamp says. 

Joshua’s mother says, however, that because she has returned to work, her son misses out on such classes because he is unable to log onto platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom on his own. Instead, she collects her son’s school work from the school every second week. The school work comes in the form of thin, ringbinder books with laminated pages. Inside them are activities like practising the days of the week, reading and comprehension and also mathematics exercises. 

On a warm day nearly two months after schools reopened, Joshua and his mother are seated opposite me in the living room of their home in Albertskroon, a suburb of RandburgRonelle Kelly has long black and gold braids that drape over her shoulders and down her back. She looks tired. I can tell from the redness and the bags beneath her eyes that she does not get much sleep. Joshua, who is seated next to his mother, is twiddling his thumbs and seems uninterested in our conversation. He is dressed in blue sweatpants and a t-shirt that hides a thin gold chain. The chain makes an occasional sparkling appearance whenever he looks up.  

“I will never ever tell a parent, you have to bring your child [to school], because if something happens to that child, what then?”

Fearful that her son could contract the coronavirus, Kelly decided to keep him out of school for the remainder of the 2020 academic year. She took this decision in June after South African schools reopened after the first school closure which lasted for almost three months.  Joshua’s mother takes on a stern tone when she tells me, “I tell you, if something happens to my son, that’s the only time you’ll see me lose my head.” Her fear for her son’s life is almost palpable.

Kraucamp says although schools are now considered safe, it is not her place to tell parents what decisions they should take regarding the health of their children. “I will never ever tell a parent, you have to bring your child [to school], because if something happens to that child, what then?”she says.  

The long-lasting effects of covid-19

Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela, Dr Hester Costa, the director of inclusion and special schools at the Gauteng Department of Education, says there are about 1 000 learners who have not returned to SEN schools this year because of severe health conditions. This is even after the second national school closure, which lasted a few weeks. According to the most recent data, has 47 918 children with special education needs enrolled at 149 special schools. Gauteng has 47 918 children with special education needs enrolled at 149 special schools.  

Experts say prolonged disruptions of the academic programme will result in negative impacts on children with learning disabilities. This is because consistency and routine are an essential part of learning for children with special education needs. 

Kelly says she tries to keep her son academically stimulated. Joshua, with the aid of their helper, Chichila Sylvia Seshibe (43), does some school work every day. She notes, however, that because they do not know what they are doing half the time, Joshua is forgetting a lot of the content he learned at school before the lockdown.  

LEARNING ON THE JOB: Parents of learners who continue to learn from home have been forced to improvise and learn how to teach their children. Photo: Akhona Matshoba

After letting out a nervous laugh followed by a heavy sigh, Joshua’s mother tells me, “I am just teaching him what comes [into] my head, what I think is right.”

I have come to notice that she laughs nervously and lets out a deep sigh whenever she is nervous or feels overwhelmed. She performs this ritual again during my tour of Joshua’s room. She opens his closet and reveals the learning charts she has made to keep him stimulated while at home. One, on the right-hand door of the closet, is a colour chart that helps Joshua remember colours. According to his mother, “Joshua’s memory span is very short.” She has cut square name tags from yellow paper and stuck one under each matching button. The coat buttons are of varying colours and sizes. They each have a thick outer rim and four holes neatly poked in the middle. 

On the left-hand door of the closet is a hot-pink A3 poster, untidily created using two A4 pages. Written on one side of this makeshift poster are all the days of the week. Stuck onto the opposite side of the poster are photos of different activities that correspond with Joshua’s weekly schedule. Next to Monday is a photo of children in school uniform sitting in a classroom, writing. Tuesdays are for dance class and Fridays are for sports. Sunday has a picture of a cross on a hill, which symbolises church. These visual charts, according to Kelly, help Joshua remember things better. They are also in line with the activities which mediumfunctioning children such as Joshua, with intellectual disabilities, do at school

SEN education unravels amid the chaos

Costa, the director of inclusion and special schools in Gauteng, notes that when children returned to school after the extended school closures, teachers noticed clear signs of regression in their academic capability. She says schools “had to start again with the whole process of reintegration into the school, adding that “everything we would usually do for the first-time entrants, [schools] had to do with all the children. 

Nikki Preston, educational psychologist at the Morningside Therapy Centre and the Talk Shop School, tells Wits Vuvuzela that time away from school is bound to lead to regression in certain skills. She says this is because a lot of learning is facilitated through social interaction in classrooms and on the playground. “We have seen a regression in speech development and sensory development,” she says.  

Joshua’s mother further complains that her son’s school work lacks logical progression. She says the levels of difficulty between one work pack and the next one make no sense to her, and her confusion often frustrates Joshua.

“there are no textbooks, no resources, no guidelines [for teachers] at SEN schools.”

A lecturer at the Wits School of Education, Dr Tanya Bekker, notes that covid-19 has brought the SEN curriculum’s inadequacy into sharp focus. She says before the pandemic the gaps in the curriculum were not as “inyourface”, because teachers found ways to compensate for them. She adds that teachers must individualise the work to cater for each child’s capabilities, and it is impossible to fully transfer that into remote learning resources. 

Kraucamp concedes Bekker’s point. She says her school had to develop its own curriculum to fill in the gaps left by the governmentprescribed Differentiated Curriculum and Assessment Policy (CAPS). The Differentiated CAPS is an adapted version of the CAPS curriculum taught at mainstream schools.  

Bothered either by the rising heatwave in Johannesburg or the education departments neglect of special education schools, Kraucamp  brushes her fringe out of her face. After a long pause, she says that in addition to having an inconsistent curriculum, “there are no textbooks, no resources, no guidelines [for teachers] at SEN schools.” The principal adds that even before the pandemic teachers had to improvise and source their own learning materials. “Sometimes we get ideas on Pinterest [and] we use it in the classrooms.” 

Kraucamp goes on to say that lockdown learning really challenged her teachers who were parents themselves. Because teachers must prepare lessons for children on numerous platforms, “lockdown learning is harder work than teaching with a classroom” and, she says, teachers must often rope in family members to help with other home responsibilities.  

The catch-up game

To make up for lost academic time for those who have returned to schools, SEN schools, much like mainstream ones, have been instructed by the Basic Education Department to “trim the fluff” in the curriculum. South African SEN schools are now focusing on core subjects such as numeracy, literacy communication and life orientation. 

Costa notes that parents should not worry about their children losing their placement at schools. She says all children in SEN schools will progress to their next level of school next year, and whatever content is not covered in 2020 will be incorporated into the 2021 academic year.  “The idea is [that] no child is going to fail, she says, and the sector aims to recover from the impact of the pandemic by 2022.  

The future of children like Joshua, who have severe health challenges, hangs in the balance as there is no certainty when they will return to school. The uncertainty is even greater now, as the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus cases looms. 

There is no telling when Joshua will return to school, or if he ever will return. Unless the world’s scientists find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, Joshua will remain confined to the environment of his home. He will live his life guarded by the high walls of his yard, with his helper as his teacher and his mother as his keeper. 

Joshua’s mother is adamant that she has no intention to send Joshua back to school for as long as covid-19 remains a threat to his life. If necessary, she says, she does not mind if Joshua loses his place at school. “I don’t mind if I have to lose his position during this time. I can rather lose it, but a life I cannot get back.” 

With most learners back in the classroom, both children and teachers are forced to adapt to the covid-19 rules. Photo: Akhona Matshoba.