Nfld. & Labrador

Back-to-school plan has more questions than answers for parents of children with disabilities

Ten-year-old Claire McDonald has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism, and uses a wheelchair — and her mother says the school district's plan leaves her with a lot of worries.

Jeanine McDonald wondering about busing, supports for children with disabilities

Jeanine McDonald says Claire, her 10-year-old daughter, has regressed since schools were closed five months ago. She wonders how teachers and student assistants who work with children with disabilities are going to cope in September. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Ten-year-old Claire McDonald of St. John's — starting Grade 5 at Larkhall Academy in September — has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism, and uses a wheelchair.

And her mother says the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District's back-to-school plan doesn't have information about how she'll be protected while going to school in the shadow of a pandemic.

"It's not really much of a plan," Jeanine McDonald told CBC News on Wednesday.

McDonald says her daughter has regressed since school closed in March. She's worried about the supports that will be in place for kids like Claire when the school bell rings again.

From accessible busing, to sanitization, to student assistants, and to her ability to attend the first day of school to explain medication dosages, McDonald says she has a lot of questions with few answers. 

"I'm stressed because my daughter's health and well-being is important, but so is her education," she said.

We have no answers, we don't know what to do.- Jeanine McDonald

McDonald is wondering if there will be extra support for teachers, student assistants, and other staff who help students with disabilities.

"It seems like there's a lot being put on them and not as much support being given to them," said McDonald.  

Claire has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism. (Heather Gillis/CBC )

She's also questioning the impact of extra sanitation in adaptive classrooms. 

"Kids like my daughter, who need hands on learning, who require physical contact at all times — how are student assistants are going to cope, with not only the learning part and her physical needs and her education, but now the extra task of sanitization, sanitizing all of her equipment, and also helping all the other kids?" said McDonald.

McDonald says she needs to attend the first day of school with her daughter to explain Claire's medications — which have changed since last year — seizure protocols, and how her wheelchair works.

If schools close again, says McDonald, Claire's education will stop. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

McDonald says she also lacks  details about busing. 

She says when Claire uses accessible transportation to get to an appointment at the Janeway, only one "bubble" is allowed on the bus at a time, since many people with disabilities are vulnerable to COVID-19. She wonders if school buses will be given similar treatment. 

And if school moves online because of another COVID-19 outbreak, McDonald says Claire's education will cease. 

"Home-schooling is not an option for kids like her," she said, because Claire doesn't write.

"We're our kid's nurse, physiotherapist, [occupational therapist], their everything, their independence. To add a teacher onto that, at home, with no socialization, no help, no support, it's not something that's going to work," McDonald said.

"We have no answers. We don't know what to do," she said.

Safeguarding supports 

Edie Dunphy, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, is also concerned about how much students with disabilities have regressed since school closed in March.  

"Children with learning disabilities have to work harder than many of their classmates just to learn to read or to write or with math skills," she said. 

Edie Dunphy, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, wants to see supports for students with disabilities safegurded. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Dunphy said many students with disabilities need dedicated support, like adaptive technology, instruction in smaller groups, and more time for tests.

She wants to make sure their accommodations and supports are safeguarded and given priority.

"What we'd like to see at this point is to ensure that that's not going to get lost when they start school in a couple of weeks, because it's going to be obviously very hectic in school."

Each situation unique: NLESD

In a statement, the school district says they're following guidance from the chief medical officer of health.'

"It is difficult to provide overall protocols within alternate transportation, as each student's needs and family situation is unique."

They say they are "committed to working with each student, family and contractor as needed to ensure we are all appropriately responding to the needs of students."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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