An Island man says he is very anxious at the prospect of his son returning to school in September.
Melvin Ford is a single parent living in Montague with his 17-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, Brayden, the latter of whom has Down syndrome.
He said he is worried about what back-to-school plans will mean for Brayden, and questions why parents of children with disabilities were not consulted before the plans were released.
"Through all the planning stages and all the documents that have been released or return to school plans, I don't see one word mentioned about children with disabilities anywhere in the programming," he said.
(In fact, the province's FAQ does say: "Caregivers of children with complex medical needs should consult with their family doctor or pediatrician prior to school starting to discuss the individual needs of their child and the impact of their return to school during the pandemic. If a child is not able to return to school, we will support remote learning.)
Ford said reading the specific school plans left him with many unanswered questions, particularly around what the changes will mean for his son socially. He did talk to a school official in Montague, who promised to give him answers soon. But the anxiety persists.
"What cohort is he in? He goes to a learning centre. Is that his cohort? If that's his cohort, then he's isolated from the rest of his friends that he's had for the last 10 years of his life," he said.
"Can he not socialize with them? Is he not with them? … Is the learning centre his classroom or is it a homeroom classroom?"
In an email to CBC News, officials with the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning said children with disabilities will not be placed in cohorts based on their disabilities, but will be placed with their peers.
Ford describes his son as a "huggable, lovable, wants to be with his friends, high-five kind of kid" who is very social and loves to be around people.
"To be honest, my son doesn't understand what a pandemic is … he doesn't understand illness … he doesn't understand isolation, he doesn't understand physical distancing," he said.
"Why are they not reaching out to us to say, 'Hey, listen. We know you have a child with a disability. Maybe you should come and sit down and talk to us'?"
He contracts everything and anything that's possible during the school year. — Melvin Ford
Ford said Brayden has a very weak respiratory system, and he worries how that will affect his school year.
"He contracts everything and anything that's possible during the school year. In a lot of cases. he's medicated with antibiotics throughout the school year to keep him in school," Ford said.
"My son suffers with the sniffles, a cold, 90 per cent of the school year during the wintertime.... He doesn't understand even his own health to tell me that he's not feeling well.
"Like a lot of children with disabilities, especially with Down syndrome, they're happy all the time. He can be a sick child and still be a happy-go-lucky as the next child. Doesn't mean that anything is wrong with him."
Meeting needs, wants and requirements
The Public Schools Branch has said it expects to see absentee rates in schools go up as cold and flu season nears.
"School administration, teachers and staff are familiar with their students and recognize that there are children with seasonal allergies or other occurrences that could cause a cough," said Department of Education officials in an email to CBC News.
"If the child felt well otherwise, they would still be able to be at school. However it would be important for parents and education staff to monitor for other symptoms (fever, extreme tiredness, etc.) and make sure the child is home in these instances."
Ford worries that if he's asked to retrieve Brayden whenever he is showing coronavirus-like symptoms so that he can be tested, it could be every second day. This would mean lost time for both of them — in school for Brayden and at work for his dad.
The Public Schools Branch has said parents will be expected to screen their children every day and send them to school at their discretion.
Ford said he wants to be reassured that his son and other children with disabilities are going to be looked at on an individual basis to make sure that their needs, wants and requirements are being factored into the pandemic plans.
He said he will continue to advocate for his child.
"I scratch my head … our children with disabilities are special children, they're special needs children, they require specific things to progress in school."
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