Saskatoon resident Katherine Stevenson was frustrated with the risks associated with sending her son back to in-person learning. Her son has primary B-cell deficiency and Down Syndrome.
She decided to create another option.
Stevenson and other parents of children with complicated medical issues have started their own in-person schooling option called ART (At Risk Together) Co-operative School, which she calls "Canada's first and only fully licensed child-care facility and preschool for immunocompromised families."
"Typical schools and preschools are at high risk for our children and their families," Stevenson, the president of ART, said.
Stevenson said ART uses hyper-filtration, carbon dioxide monitoring and regular rapid testing.
"Ventilation has always been a challenge in schools. Most schools aren't there."
ART has also set a limit of 10 full-time children from six total families to minimize household transmission. It currently has seven children from four families enrolled.
"My son, Hugo, attends the school too. He used to be ill all the time at preschools, being hospitalized every four to six weeks. When COVID hit and schools were shut, he didn't get sick. That inspired me and other parents to think about a safer system," Stevenson said.
"We use masking, testing and monitoring. We [have] had no transmission at school."
Stevenson said others in Saskatchewan could replicate ART's model.
"We've created a safer system with a great curriculum. We want other communities to help their families too."
Stevenson said there are kids whose family members are going through cancer treatments and thus need a safe bubble.
"There's a real need for safe spaces in the community."
'Assisting kids with medical trauma'
Audra Fawcett, ART's director, said it monitors CO2 levels in every room, based on a U.K. model. Fawcett, who has 30 years experience as an educator, said few schools have such a mechanism in place.
"We have never had any situation since we started in January where anything is spread from child to child, or staff to child or vice versa, not even a cold."
Fawcett said ART is sanitized constantly, prioritizes masking and does not let kids share toys.
She said staff encourage kids to develop healthy relationships with their own bodies as many deal with medical trauma.
"Some kids have had only relationships with their families and doctors. It's not always a positive relationship, so we are assisting kids with medical trauma," she said.
"Immunocompromization causes kids physical grief. Realizing your body is still a good place to be is a tough thing for a kid."
Kiara Epp, the early childhood educator at the facility, said she strives to provide "inclusive and discovery-based education."
Epp said inclusive education means observing the needs of the child and adapting the environment to meet their sensory and emotional needs. She said this is difficult in traditional school settings.
"Discovery based approach is child-led. We use loose parts and open-ended items and stay away from typical bright plastic toys," Epp said.
"All this helps in dealing with medical trauma as we create a safe and welcoming environment. Discovery based education exists in some places in Saskatchewan, but we have a long way to go."
'Regular schools should think about accommodations'
"I have made friends and I like everything there. I get to learn in a fun way," said six-year-old Gabriel Wheeler, who attends ART along with taking Grade 1 classes online from another school.
His three-year-old sister Elyse Wheeler has underlying health conditions.
"When Gabriel was in preschool and got down with a cough or sniffles, Elyse got sick. She was thrice hospitalized in her first year of life," Dean Summach, their dad, said.
"It made it tricky for us especially since we both work, but fortunately they haven't had any of those colds or sniffles so far at ART."
Summach said his daughter had no social interactions with anyone other than her brother for her first two and a half years.
"Their class is a bubble and we do rapid tests every day before they go to school, so we have the confidence that they can have a good day at school without worrying they'll pick up something," he said.
Their mother, Anne-Marie Wheeler, said schools need to invest in ventilation.
"Regular schools should think about accommodations for kids with underlying health conditions. Better ventilation, smaller class sizes and more emphasis on outdoor education can help all kids," Wheeler said.
The couple said they do have some worries about Gabriel missing out on the in-person aspects of grade school, and have considered sending him now that Elyse has her first dose of a vaccine.
Stevenson said she understands — and shares — those concerns. She said ART's eventual vision is to set up an entire school.