Toronto

Ontario special education classes can continue in person, but concerns about safety persist

While in-person schools in southern Ontario COVID-19 hot spots will remain closed until at least Feb. 10, face-to-face learning has resumed for students in some special education classes. But is it safe for these students and their teachers to be in classrooms right now? 

Being able to deliver a variety of therapies in the classroom setting 'is so vital,' says pediatrician

Adriana Ferreira-Legault is wrestling with the school situation for her son Samuel, left, and daughter Sophia. Remote learning isn't working for Sophia, whose special education classroom shifted online, yet she also has safety concerns about Samuel's in-person attendance at his specialized school. (Submitted by Adriana Ferreira-Legault)

With two young children enrolled in special education classes, Adriana Ferreira-Legault wrestles with a dilemma every morning over in-person schooling for her children.

Her son Samuel, a five-year-old with Down syndrome and autism, attends a Toronto school for children with disabilities. It's remained open amid Ontario's latest state of emergency declaration

Her daughter Sophia, a four-year-old with autism, attends kindergarten "in a special class within a regular school," said Ferreira-Legault. However, that school has now shifted to remote learning and her youngster has been unable to participate. 

"The children don't look at the screen. They don't pay attention. They don't follow what's going on. They don't know that there's another person on the other side of the screen talking to them. It's just a disaster," said the Toronto mother, who believes online learning is simply not meant for children who require special education.

She knows how vital it is that Samuel continue in his face-to-face class, yet she's also juggling concerns about safety amid Ontario's stay-at-home order, which went into effect on Thursday.

"I send him every morning and I feel: 'Am I doing the right thing?'"

The current closure of in-person schools in southern Ontario COVID-19 hot spots has been extended until at least Feb. 10, but spring 2020's widespread shuttering of schools underlined why face-to-face learning is critical for many students in special education classes, some of whom cannot be accommodated appropriately through virtual or remote learning.

Still, some are questioning whether it's safe for these students, their teachers and other staff supporting them to be in classrooms at this point of the pandemic. 

 
In-person schools in southern Ontario COVID-19 hot spots are to remain closed until at least Feb. 10. However, the provincial government has allowed school boards to keep special education classes open if they deem them necessary. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Classrooms give access to therapy

It's important to heed the instructions we're receiving from public health officials about the communities surrounding schools, says developmental pediatrician Dr. Ripudaman Singh Minhas.

"But a lesson that I hope we've learned from the first wave as we go and confront this second wave is that special education classrooms really should be the last to close and the first to open."  

Special education schools and classes have expressly trained instructors and staff. They might feature smaller staff-to-student ratios, include specialized equipment or have more space to move around in — the specifics vary based on the needs of the students within them, he said, but they're much more than simply classrooms and chalkboards.

"For students that have developmental disabilities or exceptional learning needs, they're a place where they access therapy — speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, social work support, psychology support," said Minhas, who works with children with developmental disorders or delays, intellectual disabilities and learning disorders.

"These learning programs that we've created for them are therapeutic in so many ways and the classroom is the therapy setting." 

The pandemic has already shown that 'special education classrooms really should be the last to close and the first to open,' said developmental pediatrician Dr. Ripudaman S. Minhas, seen outside his home in Brampton, Ont. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Earlier pandemic closures that halted these tailored supports and therapies caused much upheaval, with families reporting students regressing, losing skills and suffering declining mental health, he said.

"The research shows us that these therapies are most effective early on and need very specific windows of development when the brain is solidifying its architecture. And so for children that have difficulties in certain areas, being able to deliver these therapies in their classroom setting is so vital," said Minhas, also an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and director of pediatric research at St. Michael's Hospital and Unity Health Toronto.  

"For students who need hand-over-hand instruction, who need one-to-one support, for those who are not able to attend to a screen ... it's hard to transfer these really elaborate in-depth programs to an online format."

This message was echoed by the Ontario government this week, in explaining why it is permitting school boards to keep special education classes open for in-person learning if they deem them required.

"A key recommendation of experts in the special education community was to ensure the most vulnerable kids who cannot participate in remote learning, can continue to benefit from routine and consistency in-class, coupled with the continuation of strong health and safety measures," Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in a statement.

"We have followed that advice, supported by the chief medical officer of heath, to ensure a small number of the most exceptional children can receive the care they desperately need."

Union flags ongoing safety concerns

Yet that directive doesn't take into account ongoing safety concerns flagged by special education teachers, educational assistants and specialists working inside these classrooms, according to Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

LISTEN | Concerns about in-person classes for special education amid wider lockdown

Jenn Winter teaches students with special needs at Huron Park Secondary School in Woodstock. Winter, along with OSSTF District 11 president John Bernans, are concerned a number of teachers and students are still going into the classroom during a province-wide lockdown. 9:06

While some concerns overlap with those shared by educator peers — staff-to-student ratio or adequate ventilation, for instance — others are unique to their situation, he said. 

"[Students in special education classrooms] need the kind of support that just requires up-close physical contact. The students, in some cases, just aren't able to keep masks on. They certainly don't understand... hygiene and physical distancing protocols," Bischof said. 

"In limited circumstances, with appropriate safety protocols in place, we were prepared to support the idea of having some of those students return to face-to-face situations. We can't maintain that call anymore. Some school boards have completely failed to to implement any kind of criteria when it comes to which of those students should be returning."

Bischof is critical of what he considers sparse planning thus far in addressing special education classrooms. 

"These are things that ought to have been resolved by a ministry of education, by Minister of Education Stephen Lecce taking command of this issue back in the summer and not waiting until now to start putting the appropriate supports in place," he said. 

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Ferreira-Legault remains torn about sending Samuel to school or opting to keep him at home. Having no family living nearby to help support them — her husband's family is in Montreal, while hers is in Brazil — complicates their situation. 

"I want to keep [my kids] safe, of course, and I want to keep the teachers safe and the educational assistants safe. But at the same time, Samuel and Sophia need so much support and they've been regressing so much since the start of the pandemic," she said, noting that Samuel had reverted to aggressive behaviour, throwing things and slipped backward in his toilet training.

"Both children are at the age where it's really, really important that they have all the encouragement and all the stimulus that they need to develop," said Ferreira-Legault. 

"I don't want to jeopardize their future. This is a crucial time of their lives."

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt

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