A number of school boards — including those in Toronto — are encouraging parents of children with special needs to keep them at home learning online if at all possible, given the ongoing worrisome COVID-19 numbers.
While the education ministry had announced students with complex needs could return to in-person learning this week following last week’s spring break, Toronto and neighbouring boards are saying that given rising COVID-19 cases and the fact that many staff have yet to be vaccinated, they hope “very limited” numbers will show up.
“While the Ministry of Education has directed all school boards to make plans for in-person support for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated through remote learning based on student needs, we must recognize that the current COVID-19 situation in Toronto is much different than what we experienced during a similar closure in January/February of this year,” the Toronto public board said in a letter to families. It referred to the similar, system-wide shutdown after the December holidays, where special needs students were the only ones allowed to come back to class, in person.
“With this in mind, coupled with the work being done on accommodating students remotely, we believe that only a very limited number of students with special education needs will require accommodation to attend in-person learning and this will be based on their ability to learn remotely.”
While special needs students in some boards have resumed in-person classes already, those in Toronto, Peel and York are set to start returning Wednesday.
All other students are to remain at home, learning virtually, after the province ordered schools to be shut down for an undetermined amount of time.
Special education staff and teacher unions have been urging remote learning given that they work closely with such vulnerable students who may not be able to wear masks all the time, if at all.
The ministry also sent out a memo Friday indicating that only students who can’t be accommodated online be brought back into school.
The Toronto Catholic board said it expected about 42 centres to be open as of Wednesday serving students with multiple exceptionalities, and staff were contacting families to find out their preference.
The Peel District School Board is “currently in the process of contacting families to collaborate on the development of individual plans which would support home learning wherever possible,” said Tiffany Gooch, head of communications. “… Each student’s learning needs must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Our foremost goal is to support families in keeping students with complex medical needs safe and learning throughout this phase of the pandemic.”
The York Region District School Board said in a statement that school staff spent Monday and Tuesday contacting families to figure out what supports are needed for online learning, calling in-person “an exception only.”
The plan to keep special needs students learning in person was a “key recommendation of experts in the special education community” said Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
The reason is 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.”
The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board said given it is “not operating in a ‘business-as-usual’ environment,” it prefers as many students and staff remain home.
In Halton, classes for special needs students resumed Tuesday at the public board after staff contacted families on Monday to figure out their plans.
The Durham District School Board had more than 373 students learn in person during the January shutdown, but expects the number to be lower now.
The Toronto District School Board, which had about 900 students with special needs learning in person at the start of the year, also expects far fewer.
“There is a greater focus on remote learning, where possible” this time around, said board spokesperson Ryan Bird. “Staff want to support students, but there is, understandably, a lot of concern given the COVID numbers and levels of vaccination.”
If it’s “not possible to accommodate all students remotely, we will provide an in-person option, but in-person is not the default,” he said.