“I keep on considering the situation of the learners with special needs who belong to the lower socioeconomic classes in our society, and how online education and its requirements will just be an added financial and psychosocial burden to them.”

COVID-19, also known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has caused a pandemic that changed the lifestyle of millions of people around the world. The infectious disease has moved several governments to initiate travel bans, quarantine, and different levels of lockdown in an effort to contain its spread.

The Philippines, which had its first COVID-19 case back in January, has enforced its own enhanced community quarantine all over Luzon and some provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao since March 16, 2020.

This has inevitably affected the educational sector, with the Department of Education (DepEd) banning and cancelling all school mass gatherings including graduation ceremonies. The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) has left it to the universities and colleges to decide whether to cut the current semester short or to shift to online learning. With this freedom, most universities opted to first shift their face-to-face classes to online classes.

However, this decision has since shown two major challenges that educators grappled with especially when it comes to learners with special needs.

Is the transition to online learning the right move? 

Quickly deciding to shift to online learning, to perhaps maintain a façade of ‘normalcy’, has detrimental consequences for both teachers and learners. 

First, teachers who are used to face-to-face learning now must learn a new pedagogy in a matter of a few days, leaving lesson plans to be converted into online modules that have not gone through thorough analysis and assessment of the learners’ immediate needs.

Second, learners with special needs have not been sufficiently prepared to be distance learners. They have not gone through orientations nor do some of them have access to the assistive technology (AT) that they usually use in their physical schools at their own homes. How can they then expect learners to achieve the class’ instructional goals and the learners’ own personal goals if the AT is not readily available?

Last but not the least, considerations for learners with special needs of lower socioeconomic classes are not heard; not only they do not have access to their usual AT but they also cannot afford the costs online learning entails. Thus begs the question, is the transition to online learning the right move for educational institutions during this pandemic? 

To answer this question, education professionals must first conduct needs assessment. It is never too late to plan and to implement one to guide an institution on the proper steps it must take during this period.

To reach the learners and their guardians, educators must use all means of communication available – phone/video call, email, and/or mobile messaging. After gathering data, educators – especially those who are in charge of guiding learners with special needs – must discern if online learning is a mode of learning that can be inclusive to all.

In making their decision, it is vital that they identify if there are accessible and affordable AT options, and if there is an AT service delivery model that can help the learners and their guardians choose and cope with the new main system of learning.  (Alhnahdi, 2014)

AT options can range from low-tech to high-tech; what is important is that these options do not require a learning curve so long that it becomes a setback rather than an asset. (Young, 2012)  Remember, the AT options are a new technology to the learners that they will have to get used to in a different learning environment.

Next, if an institution decides to proceed with online learning, it must provide training for its educators. There are various theories and pedagogy surrounding online learning, and what educators need now is a program that can concisely explain in a way that it will help teachers craft modules that are aligned with the universal design learning (UDL) principles. (CAST, 2018)

For example, University of the Philippines – Open University and Ateneo SALT offer free teacher training to the professors of their university systems and to other interested education professionals.

After the training and development of materials, educators must set-up a communication plan with the guardians. Since they cannot be physically there, the learners’ guardians may have to step-up and guide the students during learning tasks while using the AT.

As such, teachers should set-up weekly calls, email correspondences, and/or text messaging to remotely monitor the progress of the learners. They must inform the guardians of possible scenarios that these people may encounter as they try to make a new learning routine for the learners.

Therefore, it is only imperative that educators must design rubrics evaluating the AT option/s and the online learning experience that the guardians and the learners may peruse. It is recommended that they use a concurrent time-series probe approach in gathering and analyzing the data from the rubrics. (Parette, Blum and Bloeckmann, 2009) From there, educators and educational administrators can reevaluate if their decisions on pursuing online education is the right move.

On the other hand, if an institution discerns that online learning is not an optimal choice, they can either explore other options of distance education, or simply cut the semester short. If they choose the former, it must be prepared to examine the different components of their mode of choice, and make sure that the AT service delivery model it is implementing is compatible with it.

It must also do teacher trainings and set-up an evaluation plan with the guardians and learners. Meanwhile, if it chooses the latter, it must prepare ample guidelines and policies to implement it and to ready the educators to adjust the curricula for the next semester and the next academic year.

I must admit that this is the most viable choice for me as a budding instructional designer as it is the most humane one, and the one that will allow institutions to have the time to prepare for make whatever mode of learning is the most inclusive and most applicable to their contexts when the ECQ and/or the pandemic is over.

I keep on considering the situation of the learners with special needs who belong to the lower socioeconomic classes in our society, and how online education and its requirements will just be an added financial and psychosocial burden to them. 

In all options (to continue classes via online learning, via other modes of distance education, or to cut the semester short), there must be a non-graded bridging program/s offered for all learners who wish to take them.

For learners with special needs, needs assessment must be done again as well as they should be given immediate access to the AT they were used to utilizing before the pandemic happened.

How should we respond to the psychosocial issues the pandemic presents? 

According to Dr. Elke Van Hoof of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, the pandemic is a massive psychological experiment with millions of people, including Philippine citizens, on lockdown or quarantine. The result is a wide range of psychological symptoms of stress, including low mood, insomnia, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. (2020) 

In China, there are already studies reporting this. At risk groups for long-term mental health issues include children and young adults under 30, and those with disabilities.  As education professionals, how should we then respond to this psychosocial challenge?

First, teachers need to get in contact with their students and conduct needs assessment. Learners with special needs, especially those who already have behavioural concerns, are part of the at-risk group. Knowing what is their current situation at their homes and their means to access possible AT options shall make their psychological support plan more focused and tailor-fitted. (Obiyo, Igbo, and Onu, 2013)

Second, institutions are recommended to get in contact with trauma psychiatrists/psychologists and related non-government organizations to craft a holistic psychological support plan for their learners.

For example, it may come with non-graded, UDL-aligned modules or materials that educate the students and their guardians about the psychological impact of the pandemic. It is important, however, that the support plan must have self-help interventions that educators can teach the learners on how to do. For acute cases, refer the child to a counselor.

Next, teachers must set up an AT service delivery plan based on their institution’s AT service delivery model of choice. Having AT at home will greatly aid learners in performing tasks, in establishing a new routine, and in overcoming that feeling of helplessness. As such, finding an alternative AT if the one they had been using before the ECQ is inaccessible is imperative.

After, institutions can consider a “pass-all”/mass promotion option for the learners for the current semester.

To simply cut the semester and let the students worry about their pending requirements and unfinished projects ups the anxiety and stress that the pandemic and the lockdown are causing. Mass promotion does not lower an institution’s standard of excellence; rather, it chooses to look at the context of its students and sees that the educational system should be serving their immediate needs now, and not them adjusting to the system.

Non-graded bridging programs and adjusted curricula are the next steps that institutions that mass promote can take.

The Vital Role of Universal Design for Learning 

For these two challenges, universal design for learning plays a vital role in making sure that information and lessons are being communicated in a way that reaches learners with special needs.

Whether it is designing online modules to continue classes or it is relaying the latest developments on COVID-19, UDL is there to maintain an atmosphere of social inclusivity and engagement. In a time where it is easy to fall into despair, this can make students feel secured in their place and empowered to do something for others.

Thus, this pandemic is not an excuse to falter behind our standards of representation as UDL allow diverse learners to thrive and to communicate back to us. We are encouraging their participation by subscribing to UDL principles, indirectly telling them that they are part of the global community and they are not left behind.

Chelsea Caritativo is a senior instructional design and research student from University of the Philippines-Open University. She is currently affiliated with Volunteaching.PH where she received scholarship from University of South Wales for the Teach Online Program. Her research interests include health education, assistive technology for education, and online learning.

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