Before Covid-19, one in two children with disabilities in Cambodia was not in school. Today on International Day of Disabled Persons, we hope the current pandemic – which has closed schools nationwide for the second time this year – may offer an opportunity to re-think how emergency education planning can be inclusive of children with disabilities.
Approximately 80% of persons with disabilities live in developing countries where access to education is an ongoing challenge. Throw school closures because of the Covid-19 pandemic into the mix and existing inequalities are likely to be exacerbated. This is something teacher Chea Seiha attests in happening in Cambodia.
With support from The Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children, Seiha joined Aide et Action and Rabbit School Organisation‘s training to become a teacher for children with disabilities four years ago. Before Covid-19, she taught her students four hours per day in a classroom environment within a public school in Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia.
In March 2020, schools in Cambodia closed nationwide and teachers like Seiha had to rapidly adapt to meet the needs of their students. Seiha began to travel house to house to teach her students. But, according to Sehia the education responses deployed during Covid-19 have not been inclusive enough to support her student’s learning.
Each of Seiha’s 12 students received two hours of education one-on-one from her per week, and the children with the most severe disabilities received three hours. But, according to Seiha, compared to the four hours they used to get per day, it was not enough.
“I had just one hour per student and it was too hard. I had too many students and not enough time”, she said.
Some students with autism for example, needed time to familiarise themselves with Seiha every time she visited and often her one-hour visits just meant 30 minutes of lessons.
Like many countries across the world, distance learning programs were rolled out during school closures utilising TV, radio and social media channels to reach the nation. However, for many of Seiha’s students, not only did they not have access to such technology because of their economic conditions, but they also couldn’t follow the programs because they were not designed for children with disabilities.
To address the issue of mainstream channels not catering to students with complex learning needs, Aide et Action, in partnership with Rabbit School Organisation, developed a series of online content to teach parents how to teach children with disabilities at home. Aware that accessibility of such content depended on parents having a device that could connect to the internet, Aide et Action also supported teachers to print out documents to support learning at home and distribute them during house visits.
Returning to school
In October 2020, Seiha’s school reopened. But, as she feared, the readjustment to returning to education has proved challenging for her students. “I need to go back to the lessons I was teaching before Covid-19 because the children have forgotten everything”, she explained.
Additionally several of her students did not want to return to school as the seven months of closures made it difficult for them to socialise with their peers again and had impacted their communication skills. “I need to stabilise the kids’ emotions and make them feel better first before I can begin to even teach them”, said Seiha, adding that the child-friendly methodologies she had learned such as decorating the classroom and using toys to learn would help her.
Some students however were delighted to return to school. 20-year-old Srey Theav, a young woman with Down syndrome, joined Seiha’s class four years ago and since joining has learned how to read and write. She couldn’t wait to dive back into her lessons but like many of her peers, Srey Theav has also forgotten what she learned before and is repeating her lessons from the year before.
When Srey Theav was six years old, her mother went to register her at public school but was denied as the school principal didn’t have the resources to support education for children with disabilities. Coming from a low socio-economic group, she didn’t have the resources to find alternative education options for her daughter and it’s taken her ten years to get Srey Theav into school.
An abrupt end to the school year
Sadly, Srey Theav’s reintegration into school lasted just over a month as Covid-19 has once again led to school closures nationwide. In November 2020, the government announced the abrupt end of the school year in line with Covid-19 prevention measures.
The impact of repeated school closures like this is likely to be worse for students like Srey Theav as the barrier of coming from a low socio-economic background coupled with having a disability pose greater risks of leaving her out of education.
We hope that the pandemic will serve as an opportunity to re-think how emergency education planning can be inclusive of children with disabilities and how the lessons learned this year can inform future responses. As a lead member of The Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children in partnership with Educate a Child, a global programme of the Education Above All Foundation, we aim to enroll over 118,000 out of school children in school over the next four years. As part of our emergency response in the face of the current crisis we will continue to support distance learning as well as providing emergency responses such as food, hygiene kits and school materials to those who need them most.