COVID-19 deepens concerns about access to inclusive education
One expert says inclusive supports 'fell flat' when schools closed earlier this year
For some Nova Scotia families, schools are doing double duty.
Ally Garber's 10-year-old son goes to the classroom to learn, just like all his other peers, but he also goes to access autism support that he can't find anywhere else without paying a fee.
Garber, who sits on the board of Autism Nova Scotia, said she always worries about that access in the lead-up to September.
"It's not just, 'Oh goodness we forgot to buy school supplies.' Our mind races every year just to make sure that our kids are going to be supported throughout the school day," Garber told CBC's Information Morning.
This year, COVID-19 has deepened those concerns.
When schools closed in March because of the pandemic, Garber said the loss of support from teaching assistants, guidance counselors and other specialists hit her family, and others in the autistic community, hard.
With classrooms slated to reopen in September, Garber said she's anxiously awaiting details about what inclusive education will look like compared to past years.
Exceptions to cohorting
Access to schools this September will be limited to staff and students, and small cohorts will bubble together, wherever possible. But some exceptions to cohorting will have to be made. The province's reopening plan says cohorting "should not limit academic opportunities or reduce access to support services."
While that strategy could allow specialists like speech language pathologists, school psychologists and occupational therapists to continue working at multiple different schools, Garber said she's concerned it poses a risk for spreading the virus.
She's also concerned about how cohorting might limit her son's ability to take breaks from the classroom, which she said he and other autistic children often require. Those details are not clearly spelled out in the province's plan.
"These are really big, big, big considerations for our kids, and absolutely make a difference of whether they're going to be thriving in school or they're just getting lost," she said.
A call for more staff
Cornelia Schneider, the director of teacher education with Mount Saint Vincent University's faculty of education, said the province and educators will have to be vigilant to ensure inclusive support is not compromised because of COVID-19.
She said one solution would be to eliminate the need for schools to share specialized support staff.
"It might have to be pushed to an incredibly higher level of staffing," Schneider said in an interview.
"Similar to what they did in long term care homes [when] they said, 'Well, employees that are working across several homes cannot move from one end to the other anymore because they're dragging the virus all over the place.' This might be the exact same thing happening for schools."
The province budgeted an extra $15 million for inclusive education in the 2020-21 budget. The department confirmed to CBC this week that that allocation is still on track, even after last month's fiscal update, but a spokesperson did not provide details when asked repeatedly about how that money would be spent.
"With COVID-19, we know that we will need to be responsive and flexible in deploying the funding to meet the needs of our students," Violet MacLeod said in an email statement on behalf of the department.
"As always, we are focused on providing the best supports to ensure a quality education for our children. Teachers will spend the first weeks of school assessing their students academically and emotionally, the results of which will help focus supports."
At-home support 'fell flat'
The province's reopening plan for schools includes back-up strategies for at-home learning in case Public Health advises that schools should partially or completely close again.
Schneider said she hopes those strategies will do more to ensure continuous inclusive support than when schools closed the first time. She said that this spring, inclusive supports "fell flat."
"It was up to the parents and especially to the mothers to manage this. I think the impact has been problematic for a good deal of children and will continue to be problematic," said Schneider.
While most students will be returning to the classroom, Schneider said she suspects a disproportionate number of students with disabilities will stay at home because of underlying health conditions.
She said she hopes the Department of Education is looking for ways to support those families who choose to homeschool.
No matter the situation students and families find themselves in this fall, Schneider said there will be restrictions and challenges.
"We're making something work that basically in itself already goes against the idea of inclusion, because we're trying to keep people away from each other so that they don't infect each other with a virus.
"So what needs to be sure, though, is that whatever the model is that the kids with disabilities have the same level of access if they wish as kids without disabilities."
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With files from Jean Laroche and Information Morning