Parents say kids who need one-on-one support being left behind in online learning

·4 min read
Heather Langley says her daughter, Lucy, needs constant support to learn. (Submitted by Heather Langley - image credit)
Heather Langley says her daughter, Lucy, needs constant support to learn. (Submitted by Heather Langley - image credit)

Heather Langley says her nine-year-old daughter, Lucy, loves school so much, even the bus ride is a moment of unbridled joy for the Grade 3 student from Halifax.

"From the moment that she is assisted to get on the bus, she's squealing with joy, ready to start her day," said Langley in an interview from her Clayton Park home.

She said Lucy, who does not speak and needs constant one-on-one support, is a "little bit of a star" at Burton Ettinger Elementary School in Fairview, going class to class each day to greet the other children.

But since the end of April, those classrooms have been empty. Lucy, like all kids across Nova Scotia, is expected to learn from home, over a computer screen, now that schools have closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

'For my child, there is nothing'

Premier Iain Rankin said last week he's heard from the minister and deputy minister of education that remote learning is "going well," but some parents of students who require additional supports at school say their children are falling between the cracks.

"I would like the premier to know that they're not going well, they're not going at all," said Langley. "For my child, there is nothing. Lucy and children like her, I think have just disappeared from their classroom. They're not online. They can't be."

Tracey Edwards, whose seven-year-old twins are on the autism spectrum, said instead of consulting the minister or department bureaucrats, Rankin should've talked to parents like her.

"I'm at my wit's end," said Edwards. "It's not fair to my children that they are being left out."

A good year, interrupted

Up until now, Edwards said her children, Zoe and Zachary, have had a good school year.

"This year has been absolutely wonderful," she said. "My daughter, Zoe, she will stand at [the] door and she will just go, 'Bus, bus, bus,' 10 or 15 minutes while we're waiting for that bus to come around."

Zachary has become more independent and is excelling at school, said Edwards.

"He still needs his help to keep him focused and stuff, but he's actually doing academic work, which is really nice to see," she said.

Online learning not meeting needs

But Edwards said neither child has been getting much out of at-home learning.

"They come on and they sing a song with the kids. They show a video. We do a dance. We do some stretching. We read a poem, and then they're gone. And it's 30 minutes a day," she said.

"With special needs [children], there is no online version of learning. I am sorry. There is just not."

Likewise, Langley said Lucy can't do computer-based learning.

"She's not a child that can sit quietly and amuse herself," said Langley. "If you put an iPad in front of her [or] a computer, she's more likely to throw it."

Calls for N.S. to follow other provinces' lead

The two mothers are calling on Nova Scotia to follow the example of the other Atlantic provinces and allow some students who need extra supports or care to return to class, even during lockdowns.

"I think they have the time right now to vaccinate the EPAs [Educational Program Assistants], vaccinate the learning centre teachers so that they are protected," said Langley.

"We would happily take daily rapid tests, whatever kind of test they asked us to, if that meant that Lucy could safely return."

When schools were preparing to reopen last fall, the province said in its back-to-school plan it would continue to provide "excellent supports to students to support inclusive education."

But the plan also stated that support would be virtual if schools closed again as a result of COVID-19.

No plans to reopen schools yet

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education said it has worked with families who are struggling with online learning to try to find accommodations, but reopening classrooms is not part of the plan.

"We recognize that none of this replaces face-to-face time between learners and teachers/support staff," spokesperson Kelly Connors said in an email.

"We know the best place for children is in school, but at this time, we all have to do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Heather and Lucy at her daycare graduation ceremony.
Heather and Lucy at her daycare graduation ceremony.(Submitted by Heather Langley)

When asked why Nova Scotia has adopted a different approach than some other provinces for students who require assistance to learn, a spokesperson for the Education Department would only say the decision to learn from home was made in consultation with Public Health.

Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said May 4 he expected online learning to last at least a few more weeks.

"Getting kids back in school, in-school learning, has been one of our priorities throughout the whole pandemic, and it will be a priority as we start to look at when we can reopen things," he said at the time.

"But it can only be done when we are in a position where we have low risk in communities, which then creates safe schools."