With greater communication barriers and limited mobility brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, education has never been more difficult for students, together with their parents, and teachers of St. Francis. Saint Francis Integrated Arts School Inc. from Quezon City believes in developing the potential of children with speech and language disabilities through aligning creative means, such as dance, music, and visual arts, in basic education. However, how can one focus on their teacher explaining Math in Zoom or Google Meet when a pet dog seems to bark endlessly? In view of the difficult challenges faced in an online setting, Ms. Monette Magundaya, speech rehabilitationist and SPED headteacher advisor of Grade 4-6, sheds light on St. Francis’ inventive strategies. They have undertaken certain measures to ensure that students enjoy a conducive learning environment within the confines of their own homes.

However, being unable to control external noise at home, may it be from their own or fellow students, poses a huge barrier in learning. This is especially troublesome for students with cochlear implants. According to Ms. Monette, the students find listening to high-frequency sounds even more difficult online. For instance, words with the letter 's' are more unclear because of passing cars outside their homes and varying reception depending on their device. Aside from background noise, unstable and inconsistent wifi connection prove the biggest challenge for everyone. Ms. Monette shares that, “Di lahat sila may wifi sa bahay. May mga students kami na gumagamit ng data lang. So syempre pag walang pang data, di makakapasok sa school… (Not all of them have stable WiFi at home. We have students that only use data. So, if they can’t afford to buy data that day, they won’t be able to attend their classes either…)”

With this, St. Francis holds regular classes every M-W-F of the week. They resort to meeting one-on-one with absentees during Tuesdays and Thursdays. For ease of management and focus, St. Francis restructured classrooms from a single one being shared by all grade levels to dividing each into different group call time slots. Students would look for their fellow classmates who are not in group calls, as well as those who used to take lessons with them from other grade levels back on-site.

With a simple click to a Zoom or Google Meet call being difficult already due to internet problems, how can the students maintain their attention to their subjects? For children with autism, Ms. Monette emphasized how necessary behavioral preparations are, as well as instructing parents for their full engagement. Online therapy for younger children is much more challenging as well. Teachers have to be more trained in listening and speaking through a screen; it is something much easier done on-site when non-verbal cues are obvious. Lastly, eye strain for teachers has been a challenge as well. With most activities digitized like quizzes in Google forms and submissions through Messenger, constant screen exposure cannot really be avoided. With limited interaction in distance learning, Teacher Monette emphasized her gratitude for cooperative parents as collaboration with them throughout quarantine proved fruitful for their children.

As another attempt to mitigate these challenges, St. Francis has managed to incorporate creative avenues to augment the learning of their students. This has been consistent both in online and offline settings. Ms. Monette shared that one way they are able to sustain student engagement is through activities and artistic projects. During face to face, teachers would encourage them to bring materials found around the house: “tinuturuan din namin sila mag recycle…kung ano pwede naming gamitin, pwede naming gawing art (We also teach them how to recycle … whatever we can use, we can turn into art).” This was a fresh way to impart recycling and channeling resourcefulness. These strategies were likewise seamlessly integrated into online education. To keep things interesting throughout the session, especially during challenging subjects such as Math and History, teachers would play music before lesson proper. One thing Ms. Monette noticed is how much the students would enjoy dancing! The teachers thought that this would be a good opportunity for family members to bond. At times, students and parents are asked to submit videos following designated choreography. All of these learning strategies have been cheerfully received by students and parents alike. This goes to show not only the extra mile teachers go through to ensure conducive learning environments for their students, but also the thought and sincerity they always put into their work.

Regardless of the changes they have been pushed to make, being a SPED teacher is expected to come with hardships, difficulties, and frustrations. Ms. Monette explains that it is love for the children that both drove and kept her in this career. It is a job that tests and extends the limits of one's patience. But for those who stay with these children, such as Ms. Monette has, love is also returned. She shares that the children of neurodivergence and hard of hearing are the sweetest and most caring children one will ever meet. They express their consideration, love, and appreciation for the people they care about in their own ways. Ms. Monette shared that there had been times where the teachers, herself included, exaggerated their reactions, pretending to be angered or saddened at the students. When the students understood that the teachers were sharing strong emotions, they responded with great concern and care. And as Ms. Monette explains, the job requires great lengths of patience, and initiative led by love.

Nonetheless, education continues. But given unique conditions and uncertain circumstances, achieving such is not without its challenges. Through Ms. Monette’s sharing, we have learned how eager every stakeholder is in assuring that the children receive holistic development. Music, dance, and visual arts are still proven not only effective but also highly preferred by the students, making learning at home more engaging and enjoyable than usual. Although there is an undeniable liking for on-site learning over online, the efforts of teachers and parents are one that should not be overlooked. Their collaboration is a crucial element in fostering effective spaces for learning. Truly, the unmistakable love and patience shared within the St. Francis community have allowed all to traverse uncertain times with hopeful and warm spirits.