The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on life as we knew it, with mainstream schools scrambling to retain a semblance of normality for their learners.
While most have been able to adjust to the new normal with ease, the same cannot be said about the Stepping Stone school for children with autism and other learning disabilities.
For the learners and their families, Stepping Stone is more than a school, it is a community where they can learn, live and be equipped with the necessary tools on how to become self-sufficient, productive members of society.
Having this taken away by the lockdowns and stringent regulations as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the community at Stepping Stone was destabilised, albeit temporarily.
“It was a tough year for our learners, we fought to communicate with them. We started teaching them via the phone. Stepping Stone is a place where learners can learn to be independent, they learn life skills but they were stuck at home without therapy. We saw a lot of regression in speech for some, self-harm in others and while some exhibited challenging behaviour,” Almarie Mostert, the principal of Stepping Stone said.
She explained that to continue with its operations, the school had to apply for an essential service provider in order to resume operations because the school is essential for the well-being of the children.
“We worked in rotation, teaching the children how to wear masks, especially those with sensory degradation issues. It was a massive achievement because we are able to adhere to the Covid-19 regulations,” she said, beaming with pride.
Admittedly, Mostert said the school is always in need of donations of cleaning products, odour-free sanitizers that are also non-toxic and medical grade masks because they are softer and the children prefer to use those.
Mostert, who’s always had a passion for working with special needs children since she was knee high to a grasshopper, founded the school in 2015. “I’ve always had a natural feeling to care for children with special needs. I studied at the University of Pretoria, and then I went to England where I worked as a teacher’s assistant. I was offered permanent employment and I requested to work in the autism class,” Mostert recounted her journey to opening the school.
She eventually moved back to Namibia in 2015, when she started Stepping Stone school as a kindergarten with four learners, and now they have 37 learners enrolled, with 15 on the waiting list and the school introduced a mainstream curriculum this year.
Owing to the fact that the school is not funded by the government, the parents are expected to pay school fees, which some parents cannot afford.
This has resulted in the waiting list. However, the school has an ongoing campaign that seeks to find sponsors who will pay the monthly school fees for each of the children on the waiting list, all of whom are special needs children.
“The school fees are N$4 000 per month. These are basic school fees which support the staff and resources we need. We have one adult (teacher) per two children and one adult per four children for the mainstream classes,” she explained.
Mostert added that it was imperative to include the mainstream curriculum as some learners are unable to function academically in mainstream schools due to sensory issues.
Additionally, they get teased and bullied by learners in mainstream schools.
Some of the pupils at Stepping Stone were enrolled in mainstream schools but they couldn’t cope, getting lost among 30 other learners. She added that the goal now is to eventually introduce a high school and vocational school.
“I want our learners to be able to access mainstream society, go to university, find jobs etc. They need to discover who they are, find a place in their communities. We have to accept them.”
Reiterating that it is imperative to accept children with special needs and let them be themselves, she pointed out that they had a case of a learner who came to the school at 10 years old without ever having previously gone to school at all.
He was isolated from the community because his family did not know that a safe haven like Stepping Stone existed.
“Some of the children come from townships where there is no awareness. Our country can do better, children with intellectual impairments should not be isolated,” she said. Good Samaritans who can commit to sponsoring a learner by paying their tuition, donating sanitizers and masks or simply donating their time, are encouraged to contact Mostert directly.
Wikipedia describes autism as a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behaviour.