Ontario has 'no plans' to close schools for special needs students

Ontario says there are no plans to close residential schools for special needs students, but the Liberal government issued conflicting statements on Monday about the schools' future.

But conflicting statements leave it open whether that promise is for this year or for good

Omar Elchami attends Amethyst Demonstration School in London. He spoke to Education Minister Liz Sandals in February, during her consultation about the future of the provincial schools for students with severe learning disabilities. (Katrina Elchami)

Ontario says there are no plans to close residential schools for special needs students, but the Liberal government issued conflicting statements Monday about the schools' future.

Parents and staff protested after the government halted admissions for this fall, while it consulted on the future of schools in Belleville, Milton, Ottawa and London for students who are deaf, blind or have severe learning disabilities.

In response, the province said this spring that it would resume the admissions process for the schools for the 2016-17 school year, but wouldn't guarantee their future beyond that. In a news release Monday the government announced that, "over the coming year the province will keep all provincial and demonstration schools open."

But hours later Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said in a statement that "we will not be closing the provincial and demonstration schools, and have no plans to close them."

'Smoke and mirrors'

When asked whether that means the government's final decision is to keep the schools open permanently, a spokeswoman would only reiterate that there are "no plans" to close them.

The president of the union representing staff at Trillium Demonstration School in Milton isn't convinced.

"It's more smoke and mirrors," said Bob Ryan, head of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union local.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath urged Premier Kathleen Wynne to keep the schools open "in the long term to put parents' minds at ease" and stop further cuts to special education funding across the province."

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said he is awaiting further details and confirmation the schools will remain open beyond next year.

Pilot projects coming, province says

The government also announced that "intensive reading intervention projects" will be introduced in school boards as a pilot project and a reference group will be established "to provide guidance and input on strengthening supports for students who are deaf or hard of hearing."

Ryan said details are lacking so far on the pilot project.

"I see this as some lucky kids out there in one or two school boards are going to get some extra help this year and that's going to be used as an excuse to close the schools for everybody," he said.

Ryan is a residential counsellor at Trillium, and he said he worries the schools will be closed to save money, but they provide a valuable service.

"We're not talking about a student that is one year behind in reading," he said. Students go to Trillium and the other special schools when they "have gotten to Grade 8 and are still reading at Grade 1 (level), and the school board has done everything they can for seven years to help and nothing has worked," Ryan said. 

There are only 160 students total in the demonstration schools, which offer individualized programs tailored to each student, but the government caps enrolment at 40 per school.