This year has been an especially challenging one for education around the world, but as we mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities which falls on every 3rd December, we must acknowledge that in many places, the Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the barriers to learning faced by children with disabilities.
Radio broadcast lessons have provided a key means of education continuity during the period of school closures, but some children with disabilities have faced challenges in accessing these activities. As schools reopen, the UK Government funded Building Learning Foundations (BLF) programme is supporting the Rwanda Education Board to bridge this gap, focusing on ensuring that children with disabilities are returning to school and continuing their education.
As part of BLF’s work, 35 BLF Special Needs Education Coordinators (SNECOs) work with 476 targeted schools to improve the identification of children with disabilities, to promote inclusive teaching methodologies, and to add value to the work of school leadership and local authorities in their efforts to support inclusive education. A key role for SNECOs is to mentor Inclusive Education Focal Teachers (one teacher per school), to champion the education of children with disabilities in their schools.
Continued engagement with focal teachers and schools during lockdown and school closures has been vital in ensuring that children with disabilities continue to be supported – especially those who struggle to follow the remote radio learning programme. The SNECOs therefore adopted new approaches to ensure the continued mentoring, coaching and support for teachers of children with disabilities during the lockdown period. They also worked with schools to reach out to parents of children with disabilities, as one of our SNECOs, Jean D’Amour, explains:
“Before Covid-19, I used to visit schools face to face to mentor teachers on how to support SEN students. We had to adapt how we worked during lockdown as we could no longer meet in person. During lockdown, I was able to continue to support teachers, headteachers, and parents remotely. I was able to give very specific ideas to head teachers and Inclusive education focal teachers as we had already identified these children with learning difficulties and disabilities. I tried to find ways that inclusive education focal teachers could reach out to parents about ways they could help these students to follow the lessons taught through radio. However, I quickly realised that children with learning difficulties were struggling to learn. Some families didn’t have radios and televisions, or even electricity, and a big number of parents from rural areas were not able to support their children.”
The Ministry of Education has been assessing the situation for school reopening on a weekly basis. In mid-October, it was announced that schools would start a staggered reopening from 2 November, starting with older students, with children in lower primary returning in January 2021. BLF is at the forefront of the national ‘Back to School’ campaign and is working in partnership with the Ministry of Education to mobilise schools, parents, communities and children to make sure everyone starts school on time, including new Primary One pupils.
Getting children with disabilities back to school is more important than ever. When children return, their learning will be assessed to see if they should be enrolled in catch-up lessons. Early results from the BLF assessment of access to learning during school closure shows that learners with disabilities were less likely to have done any learning during school closures than children without disability, meaning that many children with disabilities will need catch-up lessons – especially if they have never previously been to school. BLF is therefore working with schools and communities to make sure there is a specific focus on those children at risk of not returning to school, including those with disabilities. Guidance is already being rolled out to schools and local authorities to help them identify and support these individuals.
This is a critical period for all learners in Rwanda, but especially learners with disabilities who already faced challenges in accessing education. We are delighted that BLF is rising to this challenge and helping to make sure that learners with disabilities are not left behind.