‘They’re scared’: Parents of special needs children worried about return to class

EDMONTON — The decision to send kids back to school in September is on the minds of all parents, but for parents with special needs children, the choice is more complicated.

“I think the most vulnerable have been left out of this administration; I don’t think their plan includes children with special needs,” said Mary O’Brien, the parent of a special needs student.

O’Brien said the government didn’t do enough to consult with families like hers before releasing the back-to-school plan, only sending out a “very general” questionnaire.

“It asked us, ‘Are you concerned about your student face to face, yes or no. Are you concerned about your child being able to wear a mask, yes or no.’”

Her hope was for her son, Brody, to be able to return to the classroom next month, something she indicated in her responses, but it was a decision made without the proper information.

“The questionnaire was used against us in the end, saying we wanted to go back, but we weren’t told in the questionnaire the ramifications of that,” said O’Brien.

“We weren’t told that they were going to do full class sizes, we didn’t know until the end of last year that all the EAs were going to be laid off and not sure if they would have jobs returning.”

O’Brien runs a Facebook group that connects around 1,800 parents with special needs kids together and said that parents in the group “are scared, they’re nervous.”

“A lot of these parents are teachers themselves… they are not sending their children to school. So if our own teachers are afraid to send their children to school, how are we going to send our children to school faithfully and trustingly?”

Advocates for special needs students are echoing parents’ concerns, saying parents have to seek out information on their own.

“Parents are very much still in a position of not knowing,“ said Trish Bowman, the CEO of Inclusion Alberta. “There’s tremendous disparity across the province, from district to district and sometimes even school to school within a district.”

Bowman said that there could be numerous risks for children if the situation in schools isn’t handled properly.

“There’s been a loss of routine, there’s been a loss of relationships, friendships, and isolation. So the need to be back in school in some way, even if that’s online, and to be meaningfully included is really important not just for their physical but for their emotional wellbeing.”

O’Brien said that the uncertain situation in schools could result in special needs children “regressing.”

“At the end of the day our special needs kids, we need to fit into the community. The community doesn’t fit into our world and this government is not allowing us to do that.”

In a statement to CTV News Edmonton, the province said that parents of students with special needs should consult their doctors and “make a decision on what supports may be needed or what is the best option for learning whether in-class or at home learning.”

“Parents can discuss available options for support with their local school or school board,” said Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the minister of education, in the statement. “The re-entry plan asks that school authorities enable the full participation and inclusion of students with disabilities.”

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Carlyle Fiset

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