Families of kids with disabilities worried they’ll lose a year of learning

In-person school can be risky — if it’s even an option full-time. But virtual studies often aren’t accessible. That leaves Ontario families struggling to make sure their kids will get an education during COVID-19
By Meagan Gillmore - Published on Oct 06, 2020
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Alliance is calling on the province to appoint an associate deputy minister for inclusion of students with disabilities. (iStock/LightFieldStudios)

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JoAnn Purcell spent September trying to find a school in Toronto that her daughter could attend in person. Her daughter, 14, has Down syndrome and a mild intellectual disability and finds it challenging to learn online. “She responds really well to academic support,” Purcell says.

After getting recommendations from other parents, Purcell ended up enrolling her daughter at an all-girls school in Toronto that offers courses for students with intellectual disabilities. But the school, like others in the board, is using a rotating schedule of in-person and online instruction — and that has Purcell, like many other parents across the province, worried that her child’s education will suffer.

“She needs a daily schedule. That’s what she thrives in: routine, regularity, and people who will allow her to move at her own pace,” Purcell says, adding that her daughter doesn’t use social media or communicate well online and hasn’t done much schoolwork since schools closed.

Purcell asked the school whether her daughter could attend school in person, full-time. Staff understood her concerns, she says, but told her their “hands are tied.” Her daughter is now in class about 25 per cent of the time.

“Even though it seemed like an ideal school, it was only ideal in typical times,” says Purcell, who recently defended her PhD in critical disability studies at York University. “These times are quite disabling for someone who falls outside of what is deemed typical in terms of intellectual ability and learning style.”

Purcell, a single mother, teaches online classes at Seneca College and York University in Toronto. She can’t teach her students and her daughter at the same time, she says: her daughter watches YouTube videos during the day; when Purcell’s not teaching, they play outside with the dog. The two read together nightly. Her daughter learned to read in Grade 7; by the end of Grade 8, she was at a Grade 4 level. “She gobbles up books,” says Purcell.

She’s considered having her daughter repeat Grade 8 so that she’ll receive a proper education. “It just breaks my heart,” she says. “I just feel that this system is so disabling. Her way of navigating the world was forgotten.”

Advocates have spent much of this year asking the Ontario government to ensure that students with disabilities receive proper education during the pandemic. On September 23, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Alliance, an advocacy organization, wrote to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, asking him to appoint an associate deputy minister for inclusion of students with disabilities. The new position would be responsible for developing, implementing, and overseeing a comprehensive plan to fully include students with disabilities in school reopening and online education.

“Your Government was not caught by surprise by the need to plan for the full and safe inclusion of students with disabilities in this fall’s school re-opening,” the letter reads.

The alliance has called for a provincewide strategy involving more accessible online-education options and financial resources designated for students with disabilities. (Full disclosure: TVO is an online-education provider for the government.) “Equity for students with disabilities, numbering as many as one out of every six students in Ontario-funded schools, merits full and equal attention, focus and effort,” the letter says.

According to David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance and author of the letter, the government had not responded as of October 5.

Parents whose children attend schools specifically created for students with disabilities are also struggling.

Sarah Colbeck’s desire to have her older children attend high school has meant a whole new set of logistical challenges.

Her two eldest go to Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf, in Milton. Typically, they’d stay overnight there during the week. This year, because of COVID-19, students who live in residence are divided into two groups and stay on site for alternating weeks — the rest of the time, they attend class online. So, every other Sunday, Colbeck drives her children from their home in Belleville to her father’s, in St. Catharines. From there, they take a bus to Milton on Mondays.

It costs about $120 for gas for the round trip between Belleville and St. Catharines, says Colbeck. The province pays for transportation between her father’s home and the school but doesn’t reimburse her for her gas. “They should provide transportation fully for students,” she says.

Colbeck says she’s “happy” that the school is open but that the rotation between in-person and online education isn’t working well for her family. “I provide them as much online learning as I can,” says Colbeck, a social worker for the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf, in Belleville, where her three youngest children attend each day in person. “They don’t learn well online. They’re struggling. The social isolation is just awful.”

Colbeck, her five children, and her partner are deaf. Their first language is American Sign Language, and she wants her children to be taught in ASL. Her two oldest transferred to Ernest C. Drury last October because it had more high-school courses that they wanted.

Ernest C. Drury is one of three schools for the deaf in Ontario, each of which has a residence. There’s also a school for the blind in Brantford and three schools for students with learning disabilities, called demonstration schools. Each of those, too, has a residence. All opened on September 8 with a week of remote learning; in-person classes began September 14.

The residence-reopening plan “was made based on a review of school residence facilities, as well as consultations with the Ministry of Health and local public health officials, and informed by guidance from the Government of Canada with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Ministry of Education told TVO.org in a statement. The ministry’s Provincial and Demonstration School’s branch oversees schools for the deaf, the school for the blind, and the demonstration schools. According to the ministry, more than 35 per cent of the 627 students who attend the seven schools live in residence.

The reopening plan for the schools for the deaf, the school for the blind, and the demonstration schools is a “living document,” the ministry said, adding that “the branch will continue to carefully consider the details of this plan and consult and adapt the plan as necessary, based on advice from public health experts and with ongoing collaboration amongst our stakeholders and external supports.”

Some parents of kids with disabilities don’t think their children will attend class in person at all this year. Elizabeth Wallis, who lives in Ajax, doesn’t expect her daughter, 13, or son, 10, to return to school anytime soon. They’re enrolled in classes in the Durham District School Board that focus on life skills. Both are non-verbal and autistic. Her daughter has Tourette’s, and her son has Down syndrome. She prefers that they attend school in person but says she’s concerned there are not enough safety measures in place.

“Online learning isn’t ideal either, because there’s not a lot of life skills that you can teach virtually,” she says. Her son was learning about numbers and letters, but most lessons were about non-academic topics: doing laundry, personal hygiene, playing well with others. Her daughter needs constant supervision, and her husband works during the day. She’s put her plans to start her own business on hold.

“Even before COVID, the resources in the schools were lacking,” she says. “COVID has really exposed those holes in our system and the things that we’re lacking for kids with disabilities to be able to succeed.”

The lack of support heightens the isolation her children already experience, she says. “Not being able to participate in school because the resources are not there to make it safe is very, very difficult on both our kids and our family.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled David Lepofsky's surname. TVO.org regrets the error.

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