Students at Ontario school for the blind travel hours, stay in hotels to attend as residences still shut

Some parents are spending hours on the road and thousands to stay in hotels to get their children to in-person classes at Ontario's only English-language school for blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind students. The alternative is online learning, something they say presents challenges.

Province says decision on reopening lodging shut due to COVID-19 expected by Friday

Stephanie Antone and her 11-year-old daughter Yehati commute hours each day to ensure the Grade 6 student can attend in-person classes at W. Ross Macdonald in Brantford, Ont. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Stephanie Antone has been travelling six hours a day just so her daughter can attend school in person.

Patricia Hung has spent thousands to stay in a hotel, swapping weeks on and off with her husband, to make sure their child can be in class.

And yet, they consider themselves some of the lucky ones.

The children of both parents attend W. Ross Macdonald, a Brantford English-language school for blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind students that's the only one of its kind in Ontario. Of the about 150 students from kindergarten through Grade 12, over half lodge there during the week and may return home on the weekends.

But the residence portion of the school has been shut down by the Ontario Ministry of Education since Christmas out of concern around the Omicron variant and a surge in COVID-19 cases. That's left students and their loves ones scrambling to learn from home — where they may face barriers and fewer supports — or to find a way to get to the school.

"As you can imagine, [for] someone with a visual impairment, it's very difficult for them to learn online," said Hung, whose daughter Elena is in Grade 7 at W. Ross Macdonald and has low vision.

The family lives in Toronto, but moved into a hotel from Monday to Friday to ensure Elena can get to in-person classes.

W. Ross Macdonald is a school for blind, low vision and deaf-blind students. It has roughly 150 students, more than half of whom relied on its lodging program during the week, before the Ministry of Education temporarily shut it down during the pandemic. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Hung said staying at the hotel has become a "hardship," both financially and for her four other school-aged kids, but she considers herself fortunate, as some families may not be able to manage living away from home, especially if they're from longer distances such as Thunder Bay and Sudbury.

Still, "I don't know if we can do another month," said Hung. "It's very difficult."

Antone and her 11-year-old daughter Yehati managed to cobble together a carpool that requires them to travel from Oneida Nation of the Thames to Brantford and back again, twice a day.

"It's a six-hour day driving, just for her to be in-person learning. It's not sustainable," said Antone.

"At least I'm coming to school," said Yehati, a Grade 6 student who also has low vision.

"I'm hoping that lodging will get opened up again because a lot of the deaf-blind and completely blind students need more support."

Decision expected by end of week

CBC News emailed W. Ross Macdonald's principal for comment on the closing of the lodging, but was told to direct questions to the Ministry of Education.

The school isn't the only one in this situation. A handful of Ontario schools for students who are deaf or who have particular learning disabilities have had their residences temporarily closed down.

A memo from the head of the ministry's Provincial and Demonstration Schools Branch (PDSB) that was dated Jan. 13 and sent to staff at the schools involved points to the Omicron variant and a surge in COVID-19 cases as the reason lodging was suspended.

It says the ministry understands the situation "presents challenges" for students and families, but it decided that overnight stays wouldn't be allowed until at least Jan. 28.

A decision on whether lodging can reopen Monday, when the province is set to lift some of the widespread restrictions that have been in place, will be shared by this Friday, the memo states.

"We are committed to reopening lodging as soon as it is safe," Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in an email to CBC.

PDSB schools are providing in-person learning where possible, and the ministry continues to follow public health protocols to protect students, Clark added.

The ministry has noted that many students live far from their PDSB schools, including dozens who have to fly in from other communities. It also says that could present a problem if these developed symptoms and were required to isolate, because their parents wouldn't be able to easily pick them up.

Antone, who also chairs the parent council at W. Ross Macdonald, said she's concerned about the spread of COVID-19, but feels the school has shown it can keep students safe.

It's not clear what scale the ministry is using to decide whether or not the lodging should stay closed while other Ontario students are back in class, she said.

A 'right to an education'

Antone said that when Yehati was accepted to W. Ross Macdonald, the family felt the way other families do when their children get drafted to play pro sports.

It's not just about learning, Antone and Hung stressed. Students gain independent living skills such as doing laundry and cooking, play sports, take part in extracurricular activities, and get to socialize and gain confidence.

At home, they have to worry about eye strain from staring at a computer screen, and parents don't have the same skills and resources as specially trained staff, said Antone.

High schooler wants Brantford school for blind, low-vision students to reopen for lodging

5 months ago
Duration 1:05
Jade Ondrik, 18, is a student at W. Ross Macdonald, Ontario's only provincially-run school for students who are blind, deafblind or who have low vision. She wants the school to be able to reopen for lodging students, who travel from other parts of the province and stay overnight at the school during the week.

Jade Ondrik, 18, has been attending the school for four years. She stayed in lodging until it was shut down, a decision she said has halted her co-op at a local school.

"We are here for a reason. Learning is crucial," Ondrik said. "Every student in Ontario has a right to an education, but for some reason, the vast majority of our students are not given that right."

The school has been mailing packages with some tactile and large-print resources, but barriers like unreliable WiFi can block learning, said Antone.

Her family tried remote learning when schools first shut down, but there's low bandwidth in the First Nations community, meaning some days, she has had to learn by telephone, while other days she wasn't able to log on at all.

When a teacher is using American Sign Language and the internet freezes "the message gets truncated and chopped up and broken, and it's very frustrating for all parties involved," explained David Sykes, executive co-ordinator for District 30/Provincial Schools Authority Teachers.

The union represents teachers working at schools for the blind, deaf and deaf-blind, or living with severe learning disabilities.

Patricia Hung and her husband have been taking turns staying at a hotel in Brantford so their daughter can attend classes in person, rather than take part in remote learning. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Sykes and other union leaders said they believe lodging should reopen as soon as possible, stressing that students are often socially isolated at home.

"We are of the mind that the distance learning for these students is totally inappropriate and they don't benefit at all."

Hung said class sizes are small, with a maximum of five students, and she believes the school could open back up for overnight stays safely.

While she's glad a decision is expected soon, the mother said she hopes the ministry will give families some notice so they can rearrange their lives.

"I wish that those who make the decisions could come to the school and really see the importance of the residence … it's so much more than just lodging. It's the kids' independence."