THE Education Ministry continues to do what it can to equip teachers and other stakeholders with the ability to deal with students' educational challenges, including those faced by special-needs children, during the covid19 pandemic.
That was what the ministry's permanent secretary Lenor Baptiste-Simmons told members of the Social Services and Public Administration joint select committee (JSC) and other education stakeholders during a virtual meeting on Wednesday.
Baptiste-Simmons said extensive training has been ongoing since last October for teachers and other personnel who deal with special-needs children.
She also said the ministry had been collaborating with groups such as the Autism Society and the Lady Hochoy Home in that exercise. Admitting that those efforts would not be totally adequate, Baptiste-Simmons said efforts were also being made to include parents.
In response to questions from JSC chairman Paul Richards, Baptiste-Simmons explained the exercise included specific training for children with particular disabilities, such as those who are visually or hearing-impaired.
She said since approval was given in February for limited numbers of secondary school students to come to school for things like laboratory work and school-based assessments, the ministry is hopeful that Standard Four students could be able to return to school in April if everything goes well.
Baptiste-Simmons and Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Education Division schools supervisor Sherry-Ann Rollocks-Hackett admitted there were gaps in the hybrid learning education system implemented during the pandemic. But they said efforts are being made to address those gaps to ensure students are not disadvantaged.
Richards observed the Education Ministry received a $7.9 billion allocation in the 2020/2021 budget and traditionally is amongst the top three ministries receiving the largest budgetary allocations.
In response to questions from Richards on the amount allocated for special-needs children, ministry special education co-ordinator Leticia Rodriguez-Cupid said there was an allocation to private special schools of $29 million. She explained that 13 of the registered private special schools would have been paid from that allocation. Of the $29 million, Rodriguez-Cupid estimated that between $14 and $16 million would have been spent.
Rollocks-Hackett said sums of $1.5 million and $2.2 million were allocated respectively to the School for the Deaf, Speech and Language Impaired School and the Happy Haven School for the Deaf in Tobago, which have a total of 113 students.
Responding to questions from Richards, Rollocks-Hackett said, "We have some elements of integration that take place as far as students at some of our mainstream primary schools and also at the secondary level, but in very, very small numbers."
Down Syndrome Family Network board member Lisa Ghany said there was no excuse for special-needs children not to have equity of access to education. She wondered if there was a legislative solution to this.
"I would really like to see actions for these children before I die."
Audrey Jeffers School for the Deaf principal Veronica John explained that the TT Association for the Hearing Impaired (TTAHI) receives annual subventions from the Government. She added, "What the school will get is funding that is a very small amount, it's just over $2,000, about $2,200 per year."
Richards expressed surprise when he heard this figure. John reiterated that $2,200 was the last allocation the school received.
Blind Welfare Association executive member Kenneth Suratt said the association receives annual subventions from the education ministry. After noting other ministries also support special needs groups in TT, Suratt suggested these ministries consider a co-ordinated approach undertaking those efforts.