By Dana Malcolm
#TurksandCaicos, September 16, 2022 – Children with special needs in Grand Turk will not start the new school year with other students; once again, the government failed to guarantee educational opportunities for all children.
Parents of students with special needs who were due to start at Ona Glinton Primary School in Grand Turk were once again disappointed when nearly a week after the start of the school year, they were told that a staff shortage meant that their children could not be accommodated. This is a disturbing repeat of previous years and a heartbreaking reality as the Ministry of Education has failed to get the program it so desperately needed started.
On July 8 this year, during a press conference on the situation of special needs, Minister of Education Rachel Taylor said: “We are at a critical juncture in our country and our community with special needs will not be left out, you are at the forefront of our plans and programs, my government and I will ensure that you have everything you need to move forward. No effort will be spared to ensure that the needs, infrastructure and programs are in place to fill the gaps.
Yet on Sunday afternoon, parents were notified by school officials of the vacancies and said they would be informed as soon as the staffing requirement was filled. Only then can their children enter school.
This leaves children with special needs in limbo and parents and the community angry.
As neurotypical students progress, their children with special needs fall behind, not because of a lack of ability or abiding by the law that requires children over the age of four to be enrolled in school ; but because of the inadequate response of successive governments.
At the press conference, Minister Taylor said the department had hired more teachers with special needs to cope with the growing population.
“We have onboarded additional teachers with special needs in the Turks and Caicos Islands so they can cope with the challenges. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need this special school and as a ministry we will keep that promise. she says.
We now know from a more recent back-to-school press conference that it will take at least another three months for this school to open and it will open in phases instead of operating at full capacity. We also learned that up to 15 teachers left TCIG abruptly, leaving public education in a slump.
And although the government is pushing for this special needs center, sustainability may be an issue as initial class sizes will be tiny; an admission from Director of Education Edgar Howell.
“It is the government’s mandate to ensure that services are provided to all of our children. This means that plans are underway to create a special needs center that will accommodate all of our children, whether diagnosed or not. We’re going to start with a small group of students and then build our capacity,” Howell said.
Permanent Secretary Wesley Clerveaux and Special Needs Officer Jas Walkin both admitted the department was aware before the press conference and before the summer that there were not enough teachers for all pupils with special needs on the island. However, the appropriate measures have still not been taken and the opinions have arrived very late.
This leaves parents scrambling to implement an alternative plan for their children, who are left behind by their peers in the same age group.
In an open letter, a resident said: “It doesn’t seem to be a real concern for officials who have sworn on the Bible to serve the Turks and Caicos Islands. A shortage of staff may have created a shortage of services in the school system. but it is quite clear that special needs are certainly not a priority.
There have also been reports in Providenciales of children being denied public schools and having to enter the private system to give their children a chance to receive an education.
Every year, the inability to enroll hundreds of students, completely renovate schools and close teacher gaps comes to light. Residents express outrage as millions of surplus dollars are celebrated as basic constitutional rights are sidelined and underserved.