COVID-19 complicates school life for Hamilton students and staff with disabilities

The pandemic has made the transition from summer to September classes hectic for families, educators and students, but it will be even harder for people with disabilities and on individual education plans.

Some students with disabilities are forced to learn online because they can't wear a mask

Posters like one pictured here that encourages the use of masks and face coverings will be all over schools when they open on the first week of September. COVID-19 protocols will be harder to follow for students with disabilities. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

There's "no chance," Tommy Katsarakis's mother says, that her son, diagnosed with low-functioning autism, is going to wear a mask on his first day in high school at Bernie Custis Secondary.

Caroline Naylor said Tommy is excited to start school. But she's also afraid for him.

"He has real sensory issues with anything around his mouth including food, so masks are impossible … I'm worried about people judging," Naylor said.

"People don't understand the autistic brain … I'm extremely worried about that. There's just no chance he's going to wear a mask."

Even worse, if Tommy is having problems, he doesn't have the skills to communicate them and Naylor won't be there to help.

The pandemic has made the transition from summer to September classes hectic for families, educators and students, but it will be even harder for people with disabilities and individual education plans (IEPs).

"As health services have been reduced, that really impacts the development and support required for children and youth with developmental and physical disabilities," said Bruce Squires, president of McMaster Children's Hospital.

"It's inhibited the extent to which those issues are even identified and the timeliness of providing treatment."

'It's certainly not safe,' teacher says

Alice Smith, a teacher at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School, is working remotely because of her obsessive compulsive disorder, specifically related to contamination. She only found out recently and was considering retirement if she had to teach in-person.

"I feel guilty because I'm at home and a lot of my colleagues and students, who I care very much about, are in a less-than-ideal situation, in fact, a situation that could be very dangerous. It's certainly not safe," she said.

Her two kids also have special needs and are staying home. Her son, like Tommy, would also be unable to wear a mask.

"We just didn't feel it would be safe for them," Smith explained.

Friends will 'move on without us'

Samantha Jackson is going into grade 8 this year in Hamilton's public school board. She and her younger sister, Luna, both have IEPs. They were set to study in person but are going to learn through the virtual school instead because of their mother's weaker immune system.

"I don't think it's going to work for me or my sister ... we need to be taught in-person," she said.

"I feel nervous and upset because ... our friends are going to move on without us because no one else is going in online school."

WATCH | COVID-19 adds complications for students with disabilities

COVID-19 adds complications for students with disabilities

3 years ago
Duration 2:11
Students with disabilities face extra complications heading back to school in a pandemic, including how to access support services, and parents say more planning was needed from governments.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board director Manny Figueiredo previously told CBC the impeded ability for students and educators to socialize during the pandemic will be one of the biggest hurdles schools need to overcome.

Both the public and Catholic school boards have allowed for various accommodations to support special education.

"It's important they be prioritized and I think schools are making an attempt to ensure those kids are supported and really assisted in combating the harm and impact that the shutdown of schools has already had," Squires said.

The boards will also have public health nurses to help schools and students follow COVID-19 protocols.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.