British Columbia

B.C. schools enact enhanced safety measures as students with special needs return to classes

Advocates for children with special needs are concerned about possible school closures in B.C. due to staff shortages if COVID-19 transmission continues to increase.

In-person learning postponed until Jan. 10 for most students

Most schools in Surrey had fewer than 20 students in attendance on Monday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Advocates for children with special needs are concerned about possible school closures in B.C. due to staff shortages if COVID-19 transmission continues to increase.

Last week, the province announced a phased approach to returning from the winter break, with schools opening for children of essential workers and those with special needs on Jan. 3 or 4 as planned.

Most students in B.C. will be staying home for another week, but student advocate Tracy Humphreys says returning to class is important for children with special needs.

"Children with disabilities have different needs than other kids, and in some cases, being in person is the only option that works for them in terms of school and safety-wise," said the executive director of BCEdAccess, a group that advocates for students with disabilities and complex learners.

She says this also applies to children whose families struggle with food insecurity.

Humphreys says because the number of students currently attending school in person is so small it's easier to maintain physical distancing. 

The superintendent of the Surrey Schools said most schools in the district had fewer than 10 students in class Monday and none had more than 19 students in attendance.

"Many of the enhanced safety measures are measures that we've had before," said Jordan Tinney."Things like still making sure that the classroom is used to the greatest extent possible, that students are kept apart, making sure everybody is indeed wearing their masks, back to no assemblies or meetings."

School closures anticipated

However, Humphreys is concerned the rapid spread of COVID-19 being observed in British Columbia will create more challenges for students with special needs as illnesses lead to staff shortages, and potential school closures.

"The shortage of both educational specialists and specialist teachers like learning resource teachers, for example, and then other specialists like speech language pathologists, occupational therapists — that shortage has existed for a really, really long time, and the pandemic has made it worse," she told CBC Early Edition host Stephen Quinn. 

"Even those students who do need to be at in-person school may have difficulty being there because there isn't adequate support."

The executive director of the Federation of Independent Schools of British Columbia says school closures are a very real possibility.

"That's what the planning, I think, this week will be about," he said. "How are you going to manage those functional closures? How to communicate that? What do you do for the continuity of learning and what's the duration?"

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