Parents of children with disabilities and complex learning needs are preparing for a particularly challenging school year ahead, with some advocates arguing that B.C.'s current back-to-school plan is a step back from last year's.
Tracy Humphreys is the founder and chair of B.C. Ed Access, a volunteer group of parents working for equitable access to education for for children with diverse abilities. She says one of the most concerning issues is the lack of alternative programming — such as virtual, online-based school — attached to the neighbourhood schools.
"Their kids really, really want to go back to school but some of them are immunocompromised and it's really unsafe for them. Some of them have family who is immunocompromised who live with them. It's just fear of bringing something home," said Humphreys, who lives in Victoria.
Although online learning options exist at a provincial level, if parents chose this option their child might lose a spot at their neighbourhood school, she said.
Another issue, Humphreys said, is the lack of cohorts. Last school year, the cohort system was used to minimize the total number of people including students, teachers, and support staff any one student was interacting with.
"[Without cohorts] it increases that risk of close connections through a long period of time during the day which increases the risk of spread," she said.
Lack of educational assistants
For Jennifer Wark, a parent whose child is on the autism spectrum, there has been a lack of communication from the school and district about what supports her daughter will have in the classroom.
Wark says she's specifically hoping for an educational assistant who would be able to help her child or any child who needed it, but there has been no word whether that will happen.
"I don't know how it's going to work out this year but I'm sure it will definitely put a lot more stress on the teacher," Wark said.
Jane Massy, the president of CUPE 947 which represents educational assistants in School District 61 in Victoria, says the situation is tough and at their peak last year, they were short 50 educational assistants every day.
"It's a chronic problem around the province. It's not just Victoria," she said.
Advocacy a full-time role
Both Humphreys and Wark said part of the battle is communicating with the schools about the needs of their children.
Wark said it took endless emails to secure one hour of support for the first day of school for her child.
"We had to fight ... for every little scrap of hour that we've got," Wark said. "I've been to the district multiple times, made speeches about how they're not supporting inclusive learning. I stood before the board of SD61 on two different occasions pleading for them to improve the situation in schools."
She says last year she emailed former Minister of Education Rob Fleming dozens of times before he sent her a response.
"If I had to do it again this year, I guess I'm doing it again this year."
Humphreys is organizing an online conference on education advocacy from Sept. 22 to 26 to help parents learn to effectively speak out for their children.
"It's all about learning how to advocate because there is no accountability besides the complaint system parents have to go through themselves," she said.