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  • Tracy Sherlock

Schools: Good for the economy, but students with special needs are often excluded

If schools return in person in September, whether or not students will wear masks is up for debate.

With an announcement on schools in September due this week, Premier John Horgan noted the economic importance of childcare in his weekly news conference.

“What we’ve learned from the pandemic is childcare is not a social service, it’s an economic imperative to ensure we have everyone participating in the economy. Women, men, families, need to have confidence that their children are being cared for,” Horgan said.

So does that mean schools will be fully in person this fall? Horgan’s not ready to say.

“My plan is to make sure we get it right, not that we get it done by a certain time,” Horgan said. “We’re going to be monitoring this right up to September and I think parents understand that.”

He said parents should have a plan B ready in case schools are online again.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation President Teri Mooring said 25 teachers are working on the provincial committee planning for the fall restart.

“Health and safety, workload, mental health, equity, and the increased need for resources are key issues driven by BCTF members in these discussions,” Mooring said in a Facebook post.

They are being guided by the BCTF submission to the Select Standing Committee on Government Finance, which asked for more teachers so that smaller classes could allow social distancing, among other recommendations.

More than 16,000 teachers completed a survey about teaching during covid-19 in June. An in-depth report will be ready in a couple of weeks, Mooring said.

Teachers need more support, because they feel exhausted by increased workloads, Mooring said survey results revealed. Also, only half of B.C.’s teachers felt safe in June and they would like personal protective equipment (PPE) to make their work safer.

B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said children in schools will not be mandated to wear masks.

In a radio interview, Mooring said advice about face masks has been ever-changing, as knowledge about how the virus spreads changes. She believes PPE should be available for teachers who want to wear it in class.

"I expect teachers and students to both be wearing PPE in September," Mooring said.

The pandemic is exposing and magnifying existing inequities in the education system, survey results show. More than half of the teachers who responded said the loss of support staff and education assistants due to distance learning negatively affected students’ ability to learn.

That opinion of teachers was also reflected in a survey of parents, conducted by BCEDAccess, a volunteer-run organization with 2,700 members, that serves families of students with disabilities and complex learners. The survey results found that the pandemic made inequity worse for students with special needs.

“My child requires full support in all aspects of daily living. Getting 20 minutes of video conference support to learn basics (numbers/letters) is not working,” one parent said in the survey.

The total number of parent reports of exclusion of students with disabilities increased by 179 per cent over last year, from 492 to 883. Exclusion is when a student with special needs is asked to stay home from school.

“It is tragic that so many of our children were left behind by their schools during the Covid-19 crisis,” said Nicole Kaler, a senior board member of BCEdAccess. “These exclusions increased the traumatic impact of the pandemic. There is some time to plan and we want school districts to learn from these documented failures and make changes in September.”

Some examples of exclusion reported on the survey include being asked to keep a child home from school for weeks at a time or portions of every day, not being allowed to go to school unless an education assistant or a parent is there, being asked to stay home because of bullying or being told to not come on school field trips or participate in extra-curricular activities.

Even though students with special needs were in some cases offered full-time schooling during the pandemic, many survey respondents’ children were not offered full-time schooling. Only 11.9 per cent of respondents’ children were attending full-time in June, although some of those would have chosen to stay home.

I don’t envy the decision makers. Deciding how schools should be run this fall won’t be easy – everyone knows schools are important for all children’s development, and especially so for children with special needs. And, as Horgan said, schools as childcare are crucial to the economy. But covid-19 is a tricky virus, still present in B.C., and the science is still divided on children’s role in spreading it. Smaller classes with more social distancing seem the only reasonable way forward, but that will be very expensive while B.C. is already facing a possible $12.5-billion deficit. Everyone is going to have to be patient, kind and understanding as the world figures this out.

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