Return of special needs students to Ontario schools prompts safety debate
TORONTO -- While most children in Ontario will continue to learn from home during the lockdown, special needs students – who have been given an “exception to the rule” of remote learning from the province – have been given the go-ahead to return to classrooms.
But safety concerns, including whether special needs students can understand and abide by the necessity of physical distancing and wearing masks, remain for educators who are returning to classrooms to teach.
"The Ford government is pleading with everybody to stay home because of the increased numbers and a state of emergency," Barrie educational assistant Jennifer Coventry told CTV Barrie. "We're just wondering how our students are allowed to come back."
Coventry said that the school is “relying on parents and group homes to do the screening” before the children come to class, and that’s it. “There’s no other protocols for us,” she said.
Face-to-face learning also means a return to routine for some special needs students – something that can be essential to day-to-day life.
“Having a routine leaves him less anxious, it leads him to be happy, helps him to learn,” said Kristen Ellison of her 10-year-old son Carter, who lives with autism, to CTV News.
“Losing any of it [the routine], is painful and scary and dangerous to his development,” she said.
The province has left it up to individual school boards to determine which students are allowed to return, and which staff members will be assigned, leaving some teachers’ unions calling on the province for more consistency.
“Does learning trump health and safety? If it’s safe enough for our special education students to be in school then it is safe for the others,” said president of the Halton District Educational Assistants Association (HDEAA), Judy Watson.
Watson explained that because the province left it up to the individual school board’s discretion, each board may differ when choosing what level of disability a child needs to have to be allowed back – meaning a child could go back to the classroom in one board but not another.
Watson says she wants “more direction” from the province and for every school board to have the same parameters.
And while some parents find back-to-classroom learning a cause for concern, for some, like Ellison and her son Carter, it provides a much-needed respite from lockdown burnout.
“The past nine months of this pandemic has been really jarring for us because everything we had known or what we did in our daily lives, all of it was gone,” Ellison said.
“When you change the rules and you make me the teacher and the therapist and the special education resources teacher and an occupation therapist…all the things that we special needs parents try to be, it’s stressful,” she said.
With files from CTV News Barrie’s Craig Momney