Over 500,000 special needs children affected by school closure

Online learning for these students has not been feasible

Tiasha Maria Hassan, a 13-year-old with Down Syndrome, used to attend a specialized school in Dhaka’s Aftabnagar until the government shut down schools at the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Over the last two years that the schools have remained shut, Maria has become restless and gained 15kgs, said her mother Rokhsana Yasmin Hassan. 

At first she used to talk to the teachers online, but later she started getting annoyed with the mode of communication, she added.

“My daughter is a special child. People with Down Syndrome can have both physical and intellectual disabilities,” she said. 

She said that Maria was enrolled into a school for special needs children which she genuinely enjoyed. She learnt to dance, made friends and liked having conversations with her teachers, which was helping her mental development. 

Now that schools are closed and her daughter is at home all day, both her mental and physical development has stopped, Rokhsana said. 

“She is not interested in exercising at home and these children cannot be made to do things the normal way,” the mother said.

Maria is one of the nearly 500,000 children affected by the repeated closures of educational institutions since March 17, 2020. 

Aas many as 1,700 private and 77 government special needs schools were closed all over Bangladesh, impeding the mental and physical growth of special needs children. 

Children with disabilities need extra care. For them, specialized schools are not just a path to learning but also a kind of therapy, Smiling Children Special School Director Mahmuda Akhter told Dhaka Tribune.

Children with special needs require 40 hours a week of specific attention for their development. They are now completely deprived of that, she added.

She said that when schools shut down, the conditions of many children regressed.

In the last 12 years, Smiling Children Special School has been able to transition 37 special needs children into regular schooling. “We had 10 more kids ready to join normal schools if the shutdown did not happen. The sad thing is that these 10 children have regressed significantly in these two years.”

Down Syndrome Society of Bangladesh (DSSB) Education and Culture Director Luna Razzak reiterated that children with special needs grow up in a separate world, so they need treatment and learning for their development.

Specialized schools struggling to cope

Mahmuda employed nearly 80 teachers for 113 students and paid Tk64 lakh in rent in the last two years.

When the schools were shut down, she was forced to lay off 30 teachers and cut down teachers’ salaries by 50%. 

Withv a monthly rent of over Tk3 lakh, Mahmuda’s school is currently running at a 50% loss. 

According to the director, parents have been urging her to reopen the school ever since other educational institutions were reopened in September last year. 

Most of the special needs schools in the country are on rented property, School for the Disabled Welfare Association President Naresh Chandra Das told Dhaka tribune. 

No income means the expense of running the schools is not being met, he said, adding that this has led to many schools closing down permanently. 

“Many teachers are forced to do odd jobs to make ends meet now,” he added.

Shikha Akter is a trained teacher for special needs children in Mymensingh who has been working as a cook to run her family. 

“Five months after the school closed, I started cooking at people's houses. My husband is speech impaired,” she said. 

Online classes not an option

National Foundation for Development of Persons with Disabilities Managing Director Md Anisuzzaman told Dhaka Tribune: “We started online classes but failed. The children cannot maintain an interest.”

According to him, teachers are now coming back to schools to help with the vaccination of special needs students. 

Reiterating his colleague’s comments on the children’s lack of interest in learning online, the foundation’s Director Probhash Chandra Roy said that there are also many families who cannot afford to maintain a digital device. 

“This process was not feasible for us, but the teachers keep in touch with students,” he said, adding that they were working to bring these children back to school after completing vaccination.  

“So far, more than 50% of special needs children over 12 years old have been vaccinated,” he said.

According to Roy, about 12,000 children go to their school and Autism Resource Centre for physiotherapy, counseling and learning.

He added that there are a total of 64 schools in each district across the country, and 13 schools for people with mental disabilities.