Windsor-Essex parents of children with special needs have 'huge concerns' about back-to-school plans

Riverside stay-at-home mom Megan Rigden is still not sure whether her children, who are both on the autism spectrum, will get to use their new backpacks at school this September. 

One parent says their children shouldn't be treated as 'guinea pigs'

Megan Rigden's kids, Kieran, 6, and Liam , 4, are both on the autism spectrum. (Submitted by Megan Rigden)

Riverside stay-at-home mom, Megan Rigden is still not sure whether her children, who are both on the autism spectrum, will get to use their new backpacks at school this September due to concerns she has over COVID-19. 

Though Rigden's children are hitting big milestones, with Kieran, 6, starting Grade 1 and Liam, 4, entering kindergarten at St. Rose Catholic Elementary School, she said she worries about sending them back. 

"No matter how big a milestone starting school is, there are certainly huge concerns that we have...we do have significant community spread," she said about Windsor's COVID-19 cases. 

But Rigden is not the only parent who has a child with special needs that worries about what the school-year might look like, with some feeling like their children weren't fully considered in the government's new plans. 

Last week, the provincial government announced back-to-school plans for September, which involved most Ontario students physically returning to class. 

The province's $309 million- dollar plan includes mandatory mask-wearing for Grades 4 to 12, along with:

  • "Self-screening" by families and teachers.
  • Emphasis on hand hygiene.
  • Distancing when possible.
  • Limiting visitors in schools.
  • Directional signage to limit the cross-flow of students in hallways and on playgrounds.

Little support outlined for children with special needs, parents say 

Rigden said the government's plans leave many questions, especially for parents of children with autism or other special needs. 

Though Rigden said she's heard that local school boards are "taking all possible precautions," including mask-wearing for Grades 4 and up and markings on the floor to direct kids, those might not work with her children's needs. 

"When I have two kids on the autism spectrum, unfortunately listening and paying attention to what everyone else is doing is sometimes hard for them," she said, adding that it's unclear whether her children will get additional one-on-one support to navigate these new rules. 

At this time, Nicole Lamont's children, Carter, 11, and Lilah, 4, will not be going back to school this year. (Submitted by Nicole Lamont)

She's also concerned that both her children are in grades where masks are not mandatory. Though she said she understands how difficult it is to have young children comply with wearing a mask, she's encouraging parents to normalize it. 

While Rigden said she doesn't want to keep them from having experiences at school or getting the socialization that they need, at the same time, "if we're still getting community spread like this, then I'm going to call them in sick every day." 

Essex County mom Nicole Lamont said that while the government plan is a start, it doesn't have the details that all parents need. 

Lamont's four-year-old daughter Lilah, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy type 1 — a deadly genetic disease — shortly after birth, was supposed to start kindergarten at John McGivney Children's Centre this year. 

Heather Dresser's children, Connor and Caleb, will not be going back to school this September. (Submitted by Heather Dresser)

Her 11-year-old son Carter is entering Grade 6. 

But a high number of community cases and the poor school guidelines make Lamont worry that Carter could catch something and pass it on to his sister, so for these reasons Lamont said they're both staying home. 

"There is unfortunately the lack there for special needs kids to keep them safe, like a normal cough and cold is a death sentence for our child," she said. 

Windsor mom and community personal support worker Heather Dresser has the same concerns as Rigden and Lamont.

Dresser has two boys, Caleb, 8, and Connor, 10, who are both on the autism spectrum. 

Caleb also lives with 10 medical diagnoses, including severe asthma, moderate autism, inverted hips and low muscle tone. Despite his age, Caleb weighs roughly 46 pounds, and also relies on a gastrostomy tube for nutrition, which would require a nurse to come in the school to help. 

The last time Caleb got the flu, Dresser said, it kept him sick for six weeks. 

"We can't gather in groups of I believe it's 50 now but you can stick 900 children in the same building and hope nobody gets sick," she said. 

Though she's able to stay home for now, she said she'll eventually have to go back to work and doesn't know how her and her working partner will manage looking after their children. 

Windsor mom Heather Dresser says the government's plan doesn't address the needs of all kids. (Vince Robinet/CBC)

"The back-to-school plan basically doesn't assess the needs of the special needs community or the local community in any shape or form," she said. "It all comes down to protecting every child and this is a plan that's not really a plan. 

Dresser wants mandatory masking for children and smaller class sizes. 

Rigden said she wants to see the government provide a detailed layout of classrooms and supply answers to the concerns parents are expressing. 

"I don't want to see kids used as guinea pigs but that's kind of where I feel we're coming to, unless they make some kind of drastic change," Rigden said.