Ontario students have had a roller coaster of a school year pivoting between remote learning and in-person classes during the pandemic.
For the most vulnerable students, this has had a devastating impact.
“He’s reached a breaking point. Nobody can tell me when help is coming,” said Charlotte Schwartz about her son Isaiah who has special needs.
The 10-year-old is enrolled in an intensive support program for developmentally delayed students at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), but is learning from home due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“This school program is like oxygen for him. He really can’t get by easily without it,” said the mother of four.
Isaiah’s needs are significant. He has been diagnosed with Global Developmental Delay and Autism Spectrum Disorder placing him below the first percentile.
The interruption in his school routine has left him struggling tremendously, said Schwartz.
“It represents yet another failure to provide for some of the most vulnerable people in our world, here in Toronto during this pandemic.” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said she was told by Isaiah’s school — Nelson Mandela Park P.S. — that he could return to in-person learning on Wednesday, but then an email went out the day before to parents saying students would have to continue to learn from home.
The Ministry of Education has said the most vulnerable students who cannot participate in remote learning will be able to return to in-person classes.
It has directed school boards, in collaboration with parents, to determine which students with special education needs may require this accommodation.
“In-person learning will be provided. What we’re trying to say is that we’re in a different circumstance than we were a few months ago,” said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird referring to the new COVID-19 variants.
“We also have, quite frankly staff who want to be able to support these students, but are concerned for their safety,” said Bird.
This is echoed by the President of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto union who said some of her members are concerned.
“They’re worried because the standards are not there… Some have received their vaccine shot, some have not,” said Jennifer Brown.
“We’re not trying to deprive any one education, it’s about doing it safely. And we expect this government to put the funds in to do the right thing and ensure that everyone is safe during this pandemic.”
Schwartz believes the government is playing the “safety card” right now and that it had already been warned by its health experts months ago that these variants would cause a surge in cases. She believes schools could have and should have been better prepared.
“I want Minister [Stephen] Lecce to know that it’s pretty evident he’s never set foot in a public school and certainly doesn’t have the opportunity to parent a child who attends one because if he did, these wouldn’t be the decisions he’d be making,” said Schwartz.
The TDSB said it needs time to prepare and plan for in-person support of students, but parents like Schwartz say time is of the essence.
“I’ve grown to really miss [Isaiah]. He’s not the same kid today as he was a year ago. Last year he was flourishing… I’m really worried that kid isn’t going to come back.”
The Ministry of Education said it has increased funding for special education and mental health by $52.5 million during the pandemic, and it will continue to make sure the most vulnerable students get the supports they deserve.
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