A recent study found the proportion of young people in Australia (aged 13-17) who feel their ability to cope well with life has almost halved from 81% to 45% since before the national COVID-19 pandemic response was implemented in late March.
Meanwhile, researchers have also found that young people with disability are more likely to express personal concerns that relate to mental health than their peers, indicating personal concerns about mental health, suicide and bullying/emotional abuse.
And these findings could not have come at a worse time. Teachers and principals have been stretched to capacity trying to transition lessons online while managing their routine tasks in highly challenging circumstances.
Even so, educators rarely lose sight of their core mission and have been doing an extraordinary job under immense pressure. Their biggest issue, however, is finding the time and resources to address lurking mental health issues – particularly for the most vulnerable students in the classroom.
‘COVID-19 has only highlighted existing issues’
Matthew Johnson, national president and CEO of the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association (ASEPA) says emerging research on COVID-19 shows that the pandemic has increased psychological distress both in the general population and especially in high risk groups.
“Natural disasters such as the recent fires suggest that the pandemic might particularly harm marginalised populations who have less socio-economic resources or supportive social networks. Our students and their families have been heavily impacted,” Johnson told The Educator.
“More time, planning and resources are required for students with disabilities to actively participate in learning. This includes equipment, internet access and specially designed materials and support”.
Johnson said this makes learning more costly for students and their families, and pointed out that some students may not be able to effectively participate in learning unless it is hands on and face to face.
“Students with disabilities are negatively affected by the classroom shutdown in additional ways. They lose access to play with their friends and important social learning opportunities which are equally important for development and learning,” he said.
“In the practical sense at the school level, many recommendations for social distancing or student personal responsibility for health and hygiene simply cannot be actively practiced by our students, especially with regard to toileting, feeding and other hygiene practices that others take for granted”.
Johnson said the crisis has only highlighted the gaps and inequities that still exist for students with disabilities.
“It is the collective responsibility of governments, teachers, parents and caregivers to help reduce educational inequality for students with disabilities, especially during a time of crisis like the COVID-19 virus,” he said.
“In order to ensure that systematic, long-term solutions are provided, all factors that affect access to education, including policy, legislation, financing, human resources and data, must be explored”.
Pros and cons of learning in lockdown
Dr David Roy from the University of Newcastle, who works closely with governments and disability advocacy groups, said for some children, access to technology and equipment has been a struggle with the additional complication of having access to specific services and supports – particularly medical ones.
“There have been reports of inequitable materials being sent home – busy work for some children that did not recognise they need to be pedagogically extended or provide for their individual education plan,” Dr Roy told The Educator.
“It must be recognised though that teachers, rather than systems, have been working intensely hard to support children across the board. Let’s remember though that all children need peers to engage with, no matter outward the communication levels”.
Despite the above challenges, Dr Roy said that for some children with a disability, remote learning has been an opportunity for them to thrive.
“They have been removed from discretionary classrooms; they have been able to work at their own pace with the advantage of a one-on-one parent support,” he said.
“Indeed, there are multiple reports of the parent/child relationship deepening with strength, not deficits being seen.
Dr Roy said a stronger focus has also been put on social and life skills, meaning these children will be better able to engage with their peers on return to school.
“That human connection has been deepened being isolated at home as too often many children are more isolated in a school than they are at home”.
What leaders can do to help
Johnson says that as with all levels of leadership across systems, policy and schools, the most important and effective way to help young people with disability is to listen to them.
“This also means listening to their families and carers and listening to those providing the face to face services,” he said.
“Educators, parents and individual students assess each student’s situation and discuss adjustments needed for remote learning”.
Johnson said some examples include using alternatives to print, such as audio or other formats in instruction, as well as pictures, flexible scheduling and deadlines, and assistive technology.
“Learning in a remote setting may differ from mainstream, classroom-based environments and this includes expectations for students,” he said.
“Individual education plans require that educators, students, parents and families work together to decide on the effectiveness of a remote-learning setting and how to best proceed with each student’s education”.
As schools transition in and out of online learning during the COVID-19 crisis, Johnston said it is important to provide teachers with guidance and relevant, evidence-based resources on how to deliver lessons in remote and online settings in special education.
“There must be a systematic and considerate approach to help parents and caregivers with both their domestic responsibilities and support for how they can assist their students’ education. Student voice must be heard and acted on”.
Ensuring a true equality of learning
Dr Roy said that as students return to school, regular contact, clear goals, communication, proper resources and full inclusion in both the academic and social aspects of the school need to be ensured.
“The positives from on-line learning, when it has worked with the school seeing the child as a child with abilities and challenges like all children, rather than the ‘deficit’ medical disability need to be continued,” he said.
Dr Roy said there is real concern from parents that if infection rates rise, children with a disability will be one of the groups not prioritised if medical hospitalisation is required.
“There is a deep concern across the community that disabled people and children’s lives are not as valued as others,” he said.
“For all children to thrive, communication, and empathy and understanding are what will allow a meaningful return to education; that and setting real work and real support to ensure that there is true equality of learning support in the classroom”.
Roy also highlighted the importance of to listening to the needs that parents identified to support their children to ensure schools are providing those supports.
“Build on what has worked, review the gaps that have been found and reset the system so that it works for all”.