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Learning During COVID-19: The impact on children with disabilities in Qatar

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on education across the world. According to UNESCO, over 1.4 billion learners were affected during the global lockdowns in the second quarter of 2020. Like many other countries, Qatar was not immune from its impact.

Both globally and in Qatar, the pandemic has been having a disproportionate impact on learners with disabilities, who were already experiencing social and educational disadvantage previously. Even now, not much is known at the ground level about how the school lockdowns from March to May in 2020 in Qatar impacted students with disabilities and what steps were taken by their education providers to assist them.

At WISE, an initiative of Qatar Foundation, we want to empower the next generation through education and ensure the best approaches to teaching are being implemented. Ensuring that no-one is left behind – including students with disabilities – is central to our missions.

To tackle this issue, we need to understand which coping mechanisms can help us to deal with this crisis. At WISE we recently conducted a research study in collaboration with Cambridge University to learn more about how COVID-19 has impacted children with disabilities in Qatar, and what can be learned to provide recommendations to policymakers. We focused on the voices of parents of children with disabilities, as their views have remained neglected in much of the current discourse. Teachers, special needs coordinators and school leaders were also included to understand how they managed to continue teaching their disabled students during the lockdown and what their concerns were.*

Findings from this study will help inform the direction of policies and practices here in Qatar but reveal key learnings for other countries too:

  1. High level of communication between schools and parents is vital

As in many other countries, with the closures of schools, teachers in Qatar shifted quickly from in-person to remote learning using various online programs such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. Qatar had been investing heavily in education technology prior to the pandemic and access to laptops and tablets is common here, enabling us to make this transition rapidly.

However, despite this, there were many complaints from teachers and parents that online learning is simply not the best format for children with disabilities, particularly for certain disabilities such as autism. Half of the respondents noted a difference in the routines of children without disabilities and children with disabilities. There was also concern about the quality of online learning generally and calls on both sides for more support in using the programmes.

All of these concerns made a high level of communication between schools and parents more important than ever. This is something we should take forward, even with the return to schools; we need to be encouraging continuous dialogue to ensure that the needs of children with disabilities are being met. If closures were to happen again, teachers also expressed the need for a ‘clear remote learning plan’ to help disabled students. 

  1. Learning loss

As schools were closed, the role of learning support shifted to parents. Despite lessons continuing through online programs and devices, respondents in Qatar reported low levels of studying at home. Thirty-two percent of children were able to spend at least one hour studying while schools were closed, followed by 27% spending more than one hour, but respondents reported 15% were not studying.

The main concern shared by parents and teachers was understandably learning loss. 79% of parents in our study were worried about this. This concern led more than a quarter (27%) of parents interviewed to supplement their child’s learning with private tutoring. With students around the world now back in the classroom, teachers will need to continue to consider the discrepancies in learning support received while they were at home.

  1. Social and emotional impact significant both on parents and children

Most parents and teachers confirmed that children with disabilities experienced loss of friendship, feelings of loneliness and boredom whilst learning remotely. Many children had feelings of frustration, sadness, anger, and confusion. One parent who took part in the research even noted that their child became violent towards her and her sisters.

However, 85%of school staff interviewed noted that school closures resulted in increased anxiety for parents too. Over 38% of the parents also reported psychosocial distress, expressing feelings of anxiety, frustration, and sadness as a result of school closures and having to balance their own work and household commitments with having to help their children.

As we look to develop policies, it is clear therefore that schools must consider how they can best play a role in supporting parents, as well as the students directly.

Children with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable groups in the learner community, a group whose needs are unique and require added support yet are often mixed in with needs of the larger student population or are simply not mentioned at all. It is clear from this data that the school closure in the second quarter of 2020 had a serious impact on the education of disabled children in Qatar in two main ways. First, the shift from in-person classes to online classes was not a smooth transition, with both teachers and parents having difficulty adjusting. Second, the education of disabled children was affected by what was clearly a serious negative impact on their social and emotion wellbeing.

There were also some bright spots that came from the data, which can inform policy and practice in the future. For instance, there were no instances of school dropout among students with disabilities, and most parents agreed that they would not change the school their child went to. We were also impressed to find no major differences in experience according to gender. The school closures also saw teachers engaging and collaborating with one another more than usual to plan online lessons.

Overall, despite the disruption and difficulties, Qatar’s schools were largely successful in ensuring that the education of children with disabilities continued as best as possible during closures. Teachers across all schools checked in with parents and students to provide emotional support as well as to assist with resources and learning. The education community also responded quickly and collaborated with one another in a time of great difficulty to ensure children with disabilities could still receive an education. Nevertheless, the pandemic highlighted various difficulties with online learning which need to be addressed if schools are to successfully increase the use of technology and be prepared for the possibility of school closures in future.

By Asmaa Alfadala, Omar Zaki and Samah Al-Sabbagh

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