Students with special needs require extra school help this fall, parents say

The Ontario government has allocated $10 million of additional funding for students with special needs as school starts up again in September. Some parents say that isn't enough.

Parents say they are confused and worried about sending their kids back to school

Lina Finoro (left) says she is worried about sending her daughter Davina (right) back to school. (Submitted by Lina Finoro)

With the beginning of the new school year just a few days away, parents like Lina Finoro are unsure if she'll send her daughter to school due to concerns about COVID-19.. 

Finoro's daughter Davina has a developmental disorder called Smith-Magenis syndrome, which can affect facial features and can cause delayed speech, sleep disturbances and behavioural problems. 

While Finoro has registered her 20-year-old daughter in a life skills class at Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute in Guelph, Ont., she says she's being cautious because Davina has heart, kidney and lung issues. She is also immuno-compromised.

"I'd like to wait a couple of weeks to see if there is an outbreak, because if my daughter was to get COVID, she would have a big fight to fight," Finoro said.

But at the same time, Finoro says it has been a challenge for her daughter to be out of school during the pandemic. She adds that online learning was also stressful because she had to work from home. 
Davina Finoro has Smith-Magenis syndrome, which can affect facial features, speech and cause sleep disturbances and behavioural problems. (Submitted by Lina Finoro)

"She gets frustrated very fast and angry. She would like to be with her friends," Finoro said. 

Some of Finoro's biggest concerns around going back to school are proper air quality, ventilation and class sizes. She says the province is not doing enough to support students like her daughter. 

"I don't think that our children are looked at the way that regular stream kids are," she said. 

'More money than any other province'

In an email statement, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Education said $10 million of additional funding is being allocated to support students with special education needs in the classroom. 

"We are spending more money than any other province on special education," the statement said. 

"The leading medical advice was clear that we must allow an opportunity for our students to return to school. We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect the health and safety of Ontario's students and education staff."

The Ministry of Education also advised school boards to consult with local health officials to make proper arrangements for staff training, personal protective equipment and consider online learning. 

Finoro's biggest concerns around going back to school is proper air quality, ventilation and class sizes (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The Upper Grand District School Board also sent CBC News a statement, saying they are "committed to supporting our students who require special education and mental health support in order to successfully engage in learning." 

The board said school principals will work alongside classroom teaching staff, other school and board support staff as well as families to determine the support required to develop safe learning environments for students. 

The board is also working with the Wellington Dufferin Public Health Unit and the Board Health and Safety Department to develop safety protocols to support the student population. It added that school staff will consider the needs of each individual student in their classroom.

Still, Finoro is confused as to what the extra funding from the provincial government will go towards. 

"What is it doing for special needs? Who's really benefiting from it? Is it the classroom with teachers and the EAs and the kids? Or is it the school?" she said. 

Comfort level

Janet McLaughlin, an autism researcher and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, agrees. 

McLaughlin, who has an eight-year-old son with autism, says she is sending her child back to school because he has an educational assistant to support him.

Education is a human right and we shouldn't be limiting it on budgetary considerations.- Janet McLaughlin, professor at Wilfrid Laurier University

However, she says not every family has access to one. Because of that, she says some parents don't feel comfortable sending their kids to school at all.

"I do think that they [the government] haven't done nearly enough to make sure that children with special needs are adequately considered. If they had been doing more, I would be seeing families feeling confident sending their kids to school."

She says she would like to see more of the funding go toward educational assistants, but also outdoor learning and smaller classrooms. She also would like to see educational assistants be available virtually, and for students to get one-on-one time with them.

"I hope that the government is able to think boldly and creatively outside of the box with partners of both parents and educators to come up with solutions," McLaughlin said.

"Education is a human right and we shouldn't be limiting it on budgetary considerations." 

Finoro agrees.

While she is still concerned for the safety of her daughter, she understands that some parents will have to go back to work and students will need to go back to school eventually. 

"There is no perfect plan. But, we need to work together to try to make parents feel more comfortable."