Schools in Punjab have been closed for a while now. This long break in teaching and learning will have far-reaching consequences on students, teachers and the system as predicted by several writers. Some experts predict that the culture of online classes may become a part of regular education. Although online classes are being held in all expensive private schools and randomly in public schools, yet public schools are the main player, catering to 65 percent students up to secondary education in the country. The rural population is mostly dependent on public schools. Public schools also serve as a beacon in alleviating poverty through education, as a majority of children from poor families are enrolled in public schools. It is imperative, therefore, to start effective online classes (not like the tele-schools) in these schools without any further delay. There are certain limitations in terms of technology knowhow and financial resources. Internet connectivity and the availability of affordable devices have emerged as the most disappointing factor so far, even though we have good IT policy documents. But as usual, they could not be implemented for lack of political will.

The major issues for running successful online classes include; the readiness of students, teachers, content to be taught, technology and delivery system. Connectivity i.e. availability of affordable consumer-end devices, internet availability with good quality signal and speed, an effective LMS, supportive instructional material, multiple high-quality broadcasting booths through economical and effective bandwidth are also important. An appropriate monitoring system for providing directly consumable feedback to ensure quality in access, delivery, learning and teaching is needed. Differentiated instructional systems to cater for diversified needs of all learners should be implemented. We also need a centre for research and development on online education.

There are a number of opportunities which are made available during the recent fight against COVID-19. New IT tools like Zoom, Google Classroom and YouTube-based free transmission are a few to mention. However, various socio-technical divides have, once again, started widening the gulf between haves and have-nots. Disability and our perceptions about it depriving the children with disabilities from even very few learning opportunities they were enjoying before the outbreak of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the children enrolled in special schools and centres, once again, are neglected badly in a countrywide move to start online classes.

Although, in my opinion, we could have reached out to those children with disabilities who are out of school due to long distance with the help of new IT tools. In a recent study, it was estimated that the average distance from home to special schools is over 12 kilometres as compared to less than 2 kilometres for children without disabilities. It may be pointed out that only 4 percent of the children with disabilities are in schools. The rest of the 96 percent constitute about 30 percent of the total out-of-school children. If this small segment (about 35000) is not engaged in learning online, then the candle of hope will automatically be put out for the most marginalised children and their families.

Fortunately, the Department of Special Education, Punjab has a well-qualified teaching and supporting staff. The network of about 300 special schools is quite large representing all sub-divisions of Punjab province. There is a need to plan for online classes with immediate effect. The challenges of this task are, no doubt, multiple yet foreseeable. For example, the type of disability and its intensity varies a great deal which does not allow batch processing or group teaching like we do in ordinary schools.

The availability of internet devices with large screens is very limited because of poverty and an attitude of low parental investment on these children. Similarly, connectivity with a reasonable strong signal is also a barrier to provide equitable quality education to all learners with diversified special needs. Though the teaching staff is well-qualified for taking up this task yet they lack training to teach online classes with the latest software and other gadgets.

There are plenty of opportunities as well. All special schools are located in towns where the problem of connectivity can easily be solved with the help of internet providers. Similarly, organisations such as the Punjab Welfare Trust for the Disabled, Bait-ul-Maal and the Ministry of Science and Technology may be approached to provide devices such as laptops, tablets or desktops. The department has a state-of-the-art in-service teacher training centre for the training of teachers which can be used for training of online classes.

As far as the diversity of disability and its intensity is concerned, several internet resources are available worldwide which can be indigenised with little effort. For this purpose, disability-wise groups of senior teachers and heads with at least an M Phil degree in special education may be formed to plan IEP activities based on the universal design of learning. Already-developed and rich instruction materials are available across the globe free of cost. The university departments of special education may be approached for the development of instructional material and training of teachers to teach online classes and conduct short sessions. They may provide invaluable resources to boost this innovative activity.

I recommend the following measures in order to take a head start to ensure that every child learns: The department may constitute a task force to submit a realistic plan within two weeks. Special disability-based working groups may be formed to prepare instructional material for online classes. A resource centre may be established to develop a bank of internet resources to be consumed by researchers and classroom teachers. A committee for the purchase and distribution of free internet devices in collaboration with other donor organisations may also be formed. A high-tech operation room to run, monitor and improve the online may also be established.