British Columbia

Parents of children with complex needs feel abandoned as B.C. students return to school

Jenn Newby and other parents are de-registering their children from schools they feel are leaving them behind amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parents say their kids were an ‘afterthought’ long before the COVID-19 pandemic

Jenn Newby plays with her sons David, 6 and Brian, 9, at their home in Surrey, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When B.C. announced its plan to reopen its public schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jenn Newby was apprehensive.

Her two sons, aged nine and six, have autism and complex learning needs and she was concerned that the school system wouldn't be able to fully accommodate them.

"When kids can't follow the rules, or are a little bit different, they recommend safety plans. They recommend coming to pick them up early. They recommend a gradual entry program until your child can accept the classroom routines," she said. 

"It's a strategy used to exclude children like mine from school. Having that accommodation, to keep them on task and help them with the safety protocols is what we need in order to be included. And right now, we don't."

So, when she was asked by the Surrey School District whether or not her boys would be returning to school, she ticked the box that said "No."

"They did call to see if a blended approach was an option, but my older son, in particular, won't engage in remote learning," Newby said. "We tried in March and he started self- injuring, which had never happened before, so we declined that."

Newby then expected her school district to come back to her with a plan for her kids outside school that would ensure equal access to learning. She waited three weeks.

"I got nowhere with my school district," she said. "My vice-principal called me and asked me if I'd heard anything from the district. This is the day before orientation was supposed to begin and they had no plan to support my children going into the school."

Newby de-registered her children from public school and diverted their funding instead to an independent distributed learning agency.  

That's not a surprise to Erika Cedillo, director of public policy and programs with Inclusion B.C. Hers was one of four advocacy organizations that each conducted the same internal survey of their network of parents and students over two days in August.

A total of 1,102 parents and guardians and 192 students responded. 

Half are considering leaving B.C.'s public education system. And another nine per cent, like Jenn Newby, have already left. Cedillo is very concerned by the results.

Erika Cedillo, director of policy and programs for Inclusion B.C., isn't surprised by the high number of parents withdrawing their children with special needs from the public education system. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Parents are worried about coming back, because they have seen before that the plans are not there for students with disabilities," Cedillo said. "They are an afterthought and many are tired of that.

She said her organization hears from a lot of families who are looking for a program that is going to respond to their needs, which makes her worry because it means their needs are not being met in community schools. 

"Families want options, they need responses. And not only now in the pandemic, we need to turn this into systemic change for the better of the children. These children deserve an education," Cedillo said.

Newby wants B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming to understand the severity of the situation and says he is "squandering" public trust. 

"The second anyone said 'this is our new normal,' [Fleming] should have been planning for more remote learning, more hybrid learning options. You should have been planning for smaller class sizes so that people were confident to send their children back," she said.

"Now you've got a mass exodus of parents and children with disabilities and special complex learning needs ... This has the potential to break the public system, and it has the potential to break us.

"You need to get this fixed."

To listen to this segment on CBC's The Early Edition, click here: