OTTAWA — In just over a week, parents across Ontario will be sending their children back to the classroom. Melissa McCoy’s children won’t be among them.
Her six-year-old daughter, Ivy, has Down syndrome and is also in remission from leukemia. Her older brother, Finnigan, who’s nine, has no disabilities but is being kept home as well because the family believes the risk of Ivy’s suffering severe complications from COVID-19 is too great to allow him to attend school with others.
McCoy, who lives with her family in Clayton, near Almonte, and whose children attend school in the Upper Canada District School Board, says she was originally happy to see that schools would reopen in the fall, as she’d been concerned about Ivy’s social needs not being met. However, after she saw the reopening plan, she says, “I felt sick to my stomach.”
She says there are “not really any safety protocols in place” for children such as Ivy, who does not speak and cannot wear a mask. “She loves to be up close with people,” McCoy explains. “She loves giving hugs.”
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McCoy’s view is echoed by many parents and advocates across the province who say that the province’s back-to-school plan fails to accommodate the unique needs of students with disabilities — and offers more evidence that they have been left behind and forgotten throughout the pandemic.
Distance learning, which was introduced in March after schools closed, offered few activities that could be adapted for Ivy. (Full disclosure: TVO is a provider of online-learning courses for Ontario students.) “They basically weren’t going to do anything for kids with IEPs,” she says. An IEP, or Individual Education Plan, is a document with individualized learning goals for children who cannot follow every aspect of the regular curriculum at grade level. For Ivy, McCoy says, distance learning was “basically nothing.”
McCoy also became responsible for trying to administer Ivy’s various therapies, which her daughter normally would have received through school. “As a parent, I suddenly felt like I had to take on … the extra burden of all of her therapy, all of her learning, plus just being her mom at home,” she says. “I had no support whatsoever. I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water.”
The only thing that allowed Ivy to progress in her learning, says McCoy, was the support of Ivy’s educational assistant, Annette LaRocque.
LaRocque has worked as an EA in elementary schools for 35 years. After schools closed, she began providing adapted educational activities for the two students she works with, dropping off materials in their mailboxes. She made homemade playdough, recorded herself reading stories, and built birdhouses for her students. At first, she says, she did this on her own initiative, but, as time went on, she received somewhat more guidance from the school board.
“Because I work with the students so closely, I understand what they need to learn, and I knew that what was being taught online wasn’t going to work for them,” says LaRocque, adding that she knows what motivates Ivy and so was able to provide activities that worked for her. Other EAs, she notes, did the same with their students; some provided activities via email. But the approach, she says, was different for every child and lacked consistency.
The back-to-school experience will also be inconsistent across the province. The government’s reopening plan contains no guidance for families of children with disabilities and leaves it up to individual school boards to decide how to support these students as they transition back to school, whether through distance learning or in the classroom. The Ministry of Education will provide $10 million in additional funding for supports — and the federal government last week announced an additional top-up — but disability advocates say that’s not enough.
David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance, an organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in Ontario, say that the $10 million boost in funding works out to only $34 a student. He says that, while one in six, or more than 300,000, students in the province, have been identified as having disabilities or special-education requirements, their needs are routinely discounted by the school system — and that this was the case even before the pandemic. “Before COVID, our school system was designed on the implicit premise that it is first and foremost for students without disabilities. Students with disabilities are an afterthought,” says Lepofsky. He adds that this has only been exacerbated by the virus, during a time when people with disabilities are already suffering the worst effects of the disease.
Students with disabilities have the right to a meaningful education in Ontario, says Hina Ghaus, a staff lawyer at ARCH Disability Law Centre. But children with disabilities, especially those from marginalized populations, have had difficulty accessing online learning. “There’s been no guidance from the province in terms of which platforms to use,” she says. Like Lepofsky, Ghaus says that pre-existing issues in the education system have been exacerbated by the pandemic and that failing to accommodate these students could lead to human-rights violations. “We don’t want to put students in a position … where they are punished or excluded for behaviour that was occurring because they weren’t accommodated,” says Ghaus, adding that the accommodations student require may change due to regression or other effects of the lockdown.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Education told TVO.org via email that school boards will be expected to provide accessible educational resources for students with disabilities: “Educators will continue to provide accommodations, modified expectations, and alternative programming to students with special education needs, as detailed in their IEPs including considering changes in the school environment and/or remote learning needs.” Such resources could include access to remote learning and paraprofessional services, such as the therapies normally delivered through school.
LaRocque will be back in the classroom this fall. Although she’s looking forward to it, she says, she’s also worried: “I’m very hands-on, and I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with social distancing.”
She’s also concerned about the students, such as Ivy, who won’t be in the classroom and says she hopes she’ll be able to continue providing activities for her, as she doesn’t believe a new EA would be as successful doing so. “I worry so much that they’re going to lose a lot of what they’ve gained,” she says. “We have to be cognizant of those little ones that aren’t coming back and make sure they’re supported.”
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