British Columbia

Special needs students risk losing their spot if pulled out of school, say parents

Amidst renewed concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, parents living in the Fraser Valley say their children, who have special needs, risk losing vital educational supports if they are pulled out of school to protect their personal health.

Families in the Fraser Valley say their children may be wait listed if they withdraw due to COVID-19 concerns

Ashley Parker says her sons, who have autism and Down syndrome, could be wait listed or forced to change schools if she withdraws them over concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Amidst renewed concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, some parents living in the Fraser Valley say their children, who have special needs, risk losing vital educational supports if they are pulled out of school to protect their personal health.

"I'm seeing that the province doesn't have our backs the way I thought that they did," said Ashley Parker, 35.

The South Surrey mom says her two boys, ages 8 and 6, risk being wait listed if they're taken out of school temporarily because they live outside the catchment zone. The pair have attended the school, which is part of the Surrey School District and which CBC has agreed not to name, since kindergarten.

Both boys have autism, and require additional supports for their education. The eldest also has Down syndrome and a history of respiratory issues, including croup — an upper respiratory infection known to cause a barking cough. 

This medical history, along with a teacher's recent positive COVID-19 diagnosis and the high degree of interaction between the boys and their educational assistants, has forced Parker to consider keeping them home. It's a decision she worries could have long-term consequences if they're wait listed when it's safe to return.

"If [my eldest] had to start over with a new educational assistant, in a new school, where he didn't know anybody and he hadn't built those relationships and bonds, I feel like he would regress significantly," she said.

Parker says the school did initially offer a hybrid learning model, which would have included a blend of school and home time, but she'd rather get help to keep the children at home or support them as needed in school. 

CBC contacted the Surrey School District for comment on the matter, but did not hear back before deadline.

Langley parent suffers similar dilemma

Robin Kirby also feels like she's being forced to pick between her child's health and educational future.

Kirby insists on keeping her daughter, who has an auto-immune disorder, home due concerns around COVID-19, but she says the school recently said her daughter's spot was no longer guaranteed.

Like Parker, Kirby's family also falls outside their Langley School District catchment area. CBC has agreed not the name the school due to privacy reasons.

"Should a parent have to be sitting at home and going 'Oh God, when this is all over, where am I going to send my kid?'" she said. "No, it's sick."

The Langley School District says it "is making every effort to meet the health, safety, and educational needs of families during this difficult time."

The district offers both in class and distributed learning options that allow students to remain enrolled in selected classes and return to school with no issue. Students that withdraw in order to be home schooled, however, would have to go through the enrolment process.

The District says it works with families and students, but that placement in a school program is not guaranteed for those out of catchment.

Districts expected to work with families

Inclusion experts say school districts are expected to have collaborative conversations with families to determine the best plan for children with diverse abilities.

"Consistency is key," said Erika Cedillo, Inclusion B.C.'s Director of public policy and programs. "At a certain point, some students need to also learn to be flexible and adapt to new people. But for that to happen, we need to have a very consistent and clear plan that goes with the rhythm of the student."

Cedillo adds that many of these same challenges existed before COVID, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Ashley Parker says school staff have been supportive of the family's situation, but are hamstrung by the Surrey School District policy. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Parker, meanwhile, says school staff are trying their best, but the district's policies are a disservice to her children.

"I feel like they would be really missed at their school for sure."

About the Author

Ethan Sawyer

Associate Producer

Ethan Sawyer is a journalist for CBC Vancouver. He chooses waffles over pancakes, movies over television and the Toronto Raptors over everyone else. You can contact him at ethan.sawyer@cbc.ca, or by phone at (604) 662-6784. Ethan contributes to CBC Vancouver's Impact Team, where he investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community.

With files from Rhianna Schmunk

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