When the schools closed...

A family copes with e-learning for a child with disability during COVID-19

A boy hugging his mother
28 May 2020

Mongar: “Why are we not going to school?”

This is one of the questions eight year old Jamyang Loday Drukpa regularly asks his mother. The youngest of three children, Jamyang lives with his family atop a steep hill close to his school, the Mongar Middle Secondary School in eastern Bhutan. His father is a principal at another school some 40kms away.

Jamyang, a class one student, has cerebral palsy and his condition makes it physically challenging for him to access both school and his home.  His mother Pema Yangki, 37, carries him to school, waits on him when he attends classes, feeds him, helps him to the toilet and then carries him back home. Every day.

This year was special for Jamyang, for when the school started, his mother with help from the school staff carried his new oversized  wooden chair with a support desk attached, to the school ground for him to attend the morning assembly. He did not attend any assembly sessions last year and was often left behind in class during recess when his classmates ran out.  The teachers noticed that he was unhappy to be left alone in the class.

“When he attended the morning assembly this year, he was really really happy,” says one of the teachers and SEN coordinator at the school, Yeshey Choeki. 

And then the school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic scare.

Jamyang has picked up the word ‘coronavirus’ from conversations at home and now says that he is not attending school due to the virus.  He has a similar wooden chair at home with an attached desk. While the chair he used in school helped, a SEN volunteer at the school said that given its size and his condition to stoop, his spine could get hurt if he continues to use it for long. Arrangements were underway to build a customized wheelchair for him from the capital Thimphu with the regional referral hospital’s  support.

But that too got halted due to the pandemic. 

Today, Jamyang is home, doing lessons his teachers send through WeChat to his mother’s phone as per the schedule prepared for him. His learning ability is rated moderate, but his condition makes it difficult for him to write. When the school closed, the volunteer lent him her iPad for him to practice typing and continue to learn. Based on an assessment of his strengths and challenges, Jamyang is on Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) prepared by the team of Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers in the beginning of the year.

Jamyang smiles at the camera
Jamyang Loday uses the customized wooden chair with an attached desk to learn from home.

The school has 47 children including 31 boys with special educational needs and today provides them both academic and non-academic support as part of the Education in Emergency programme. Academic support to Jamyang includes reading, typing and a detailed home routine with academic and functional activities. Non-academic support comprises of home physiotherapy, toilet training and computer skill.

According to the education ministry’s deputy chief programme officer for ECCD and SEN Division, Pema Chogyal, teachers are today supporting the learning needs of children with disabilities by posting the broadcast video lessons in WeChat and WhatsApp groups, based on individual children’s learning needs.

He said that given their condition, many are unable to navigate with Google Classrooms.

Pema Chogyal added that the Self-Instructional Materials (SIM), which is distributed by the education ministry is adapted and modified for children with disabilities.

For instance, the SIM is transcribed into Braille and converted into video lessons for the deaf. However, for children with mild to moderate disabilities, SIM is distributed without modifications.

According to the annual education statistics, 2019, there are 797 children with disabilities enrolled in schools including the private institution Draktsho across the country.

Teachers say that for children like Jamyang, being in school would have given them lot of functional and academic activities to work on and more interactions with friends. “We have seen children improving after being in a class setting and interacting with other children. This social interaction in the classroom setting would have helped him,” his teacher Yeshey Choeki says.

Jamyang attends the general class, which has 36 students. In the last one year, he has made significant improvement according to his teachers and efforts were on to help him with his speech.

His mother Pema has more time today to attend to household chores and her weaving but she prefers her son to attend school than learn from home. Until the school closure, her routine included waking up at 6am, feeding him at 7am and leaving for school by 7.30am with him on her back and their packed lunch. Since last year, Jamyang’s weight has not changed from 15 kilogrammes.

It takes her about 10 minutes to walk down to school and takes about 20 minutes to walk up home. “But when it rains, the path becomes slippery and difficult to walk on,” she says.

Besides helping him with his lessons, Pema also supports him to walk in prosthetic braces, which he has now outgrown. His father is home today but is otherwise away due to work. “I have to stay very far away and being a principal of another school, I have to look after many other children, I cannot help much.”

His mother, Pema is hopeful that the schools will reopen soon, even though it is becoming a difficult for her to carry her son. Even though the school’s SEN unit and toilets are inaccessible for her son.  “But I will continue carrying him until I can,” she says. “It was a challenge to get him to school and I want him to study because, even if he can’t move, he can make a life from what he learns in school.”