Nova Scotia

Parents of children with disabilities worried about access to specialists if COVID-19 outbreak hits

Parents of some Nova Scotia children with disabilities say they're worried about what will happen to their children's learning plan if they have to leave the school due to a potential outbreak of COVID-19.

Corey Slumkoski says he's not confident in the Department of Education's plan if schools are shut down again

Corey Slumkoski, whose daughter Quinn has Down syndrome, said her communication skills may be hindered without a trained specialist to guide her learning. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

Parents of some Nova Scotia children with disabilities say they're worried about what will happen to their children's learning plan if they have to leave the school due to a potential outbreak of COVID-19.

Among those worried is Corey Slumkoski, whose seven-year-old daughter, Quinn, begins Grade 1 at Rockingham Elementary in September. Quinn has Down syndrome and relies heavily on the support of the speech language pathologist assigned to her school.

"We don't know if we pull her out if she will still have access to this on a regular basis," Slumkoski said. "And we also don't know in the disability community, as a whole, if other people have access."

Quinn is non-verbal but has been making strides toward better communication with the help of an iPad loaded with speech language pathology software. Slumkoski said he and his wife marvel at her progress.

But they say without a trained specialist to guide her learning, they're stuck. They hope she'll learn to communicate verbally eventually, but they don't have the skills to make it happen.

Slumkoski says his daughter, Quinn Walls-Slumkoski, is starting Grade 1 in the fall and relies heavily on the support of the speech language pathologist assigned to her school. (Submitted by Corey Slumkoski)

"Our concern is that if she's pulled out of school or if the schools close, that she'll essentially be stuck where she's at, that we won't be able to push the envelope," he said. "We won't be able to help foster her ongoing development."

Slumkoski made the decision to send her back to school — on the direction of their doctor — even though her immune system is at the low end of normal. Typically, Slumkoski said when the flu or common cold are making the rounds, his daughter will end up spending about three months at the IWK. She'd be on high-flow oxygen for about half that time.

Ironically, during a global pandemic, this is the first year she didn't have to spend time at the IWK. Like many parents, they believe the best place for her is in a classroom. But they're also acutely aware that Quinn would be among the first to resort back to homeschooling, should there be any spread of COVID-19 at her school.

Last Wednesday, Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, explained his reluctance to work out and present detailed plans for any hypothetical scenario.

"There's no cookie cutter model that we follow, despite what people are asking for," Strang said.

"The nuances of every situation and the context dictates our response."

On Monday, CBC News asked the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development if it could assure parents like Slumkoski that his daughter's speech language training would continue if she was forced back into homeschooling. It declined an interview and instead provided a statement.

Slumkoski said Quinn is non-verbal, but has been making strides toward better communication. (Submitted by Corey Slumkoski)

The department said it recognizes "a very small number" of children won't be able to attend school and said they will receive learning materials at home.

"In these situations, schools will also work with parents to ensure those who require access to additional supports, like speech language pathologists, have options for continued access," said the statement. "Those discussions will take place between families and their school."

The department said people concerned about a family member who is immunocompromised should contact their health-care provider for advice.

The assurance of "options for continued access" doesn't provide much comfort for Allison Garber, the mother of a boy with autism.

"My expectation would be that there is a plan in place," she said. "Unfortunately, our families have not seen that plan."

Garber said she's not convinced the appropriate supports will be available in a school setting — let alone at home.

"Right now, my family and many other families are sending their children to school, not knowing if the supports that they need to access a fair and equitable education are going to be in place," she said. "And that's a human rights issue."

Slumkoski said the province's approach "is to plan for the best and hope for the best."

"Instead, I think they should be planning for the worst. They should be planning for the possibility that schools will have to shut down and make arrangements to provide services to students who need them."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Preston Mulligan has been a reporter in the Maritimes for more than 20 years. Along with his reporting gig, he also hosts CBC Radio's Sunday phone-in show, Maritime Connection.

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