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Leticia Rodriguez-Cupid, Co-ordinator, Special Education, Ministry of Education, during yesterday’s JSC meeting.

Despite receiving more than 5,400 distress calls since the start of COVID-19, the Student Support Services Division of the Ministry of Education has been operating at 20 per cent staffing with only 23 trained professionals in the unit.

This was revealed during the 5th meeting of the Joint Select Committee on Social Services and Public Administration by Inclusive Education Specialist, Leticia Rodriguez-Cupid. She explained that the pandemic has been traumatic to many students.

“Online learning systems have highlighted the difficulties that children face. The prolonged time on the computer has triggered emotional and sensory responses that are not ideal for students. We have noted several reports of students with increased seizures and episodes, tantrums because of the prolonged use of the computers over the last year,” she said.

She explained that the SSSD has been offering therapeutic assistance.

“We have 3,365 students who have been referred to us as special students with special education needs. Of this 2,341 are actively being addressed by Student Support services Pre-COVID but currently, only 1,214 are being accessed now,” she said.

Rodgriguez-Cupid noted that there has been an expansion of the need for SSSD because of the increased stress.

Even though the division received a $29 million budgetary allocation, Rodriguez-Cupid said $14 million went to special needs schools.

She explained that the support services division receives an average of 15 distress calls per day and there were only 23 professional staff in the Unit which comprises five behavioural specialists, nine clinical psychologists and nine occupational psychologists.

Founder of Autism TT Dr Radica Mahase said special needs children were being ignored.

“There have been no additional support measures introduced by the Ministry of Education to help with the transition to online learning, we have faced a lack of teacher’s aides, lack of resources for teachers to properly engage with students with Autism. The standardised curriculum and evaluation methods do not allow for differential learning styles and abilities. Children are unable to sit for long hours and they start experiencing headaches and eye problems. There is an unwillingness by teachers to connect with the child, respond to the parent concerns about the child’s progress, and refusal to adapt to better methods for different learning capabilities,” she said.

Dr Mahase called for training sessions for the teachers and speech and occupational therapists to be stationed in particular schools and districts to assist struggling students.

Meanwhile, chair of the Committee Paul Richards said the SSSD could not be effective if it was understaffed.

“We have heard inclusive education but it is not happening. Given the information that the SSSD is 20 per cent staffed it is impossible to make inroads in providing support for students especially those with disabilities. It is institutionalized marginalization. It makes no sense we in this country sing every creed and race find an equal place and it is not so. Persons with disabilities are begin marginalized in many different ways,” he said.

But permanent secretary at the ministry Lenore Baptiste-Simmons said it has been difficult to fill vacancies.

“Most of the positions are contract. When we have an advertisement to fill a position in SSSD, we get about a thousand applications to process. It takes a long time but we have been trying to fill the positions.

Speaking to Guardian Media after the JSC meeting, Minister of Education Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly said the SSSD will be evaluated soon.

“The naked fact is that the economic cost of full staffing is prohibitive and critical mass needs to be determined and filled. I cannot, however, comment on any reports that have not been substantiated,” she added.

“The need to increase the level of care for special needs students is the exact reason the evaluation of SSSD must be done, with appropriate recommendations which would allow for adequate staffing and infrastructural improvements.”