Long wait times for learning disability tests have been made longer amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — a trend that worries advocates for timely diagnoses to improve student self-esteem and prevent bullying.
Pre-pandemic, the average wait for a public school division assessment for a disability that affects reading, writing or numeracy was around one year after a request, according to the Learning Disability Association of Manitoba.
Now, executive director Karen Velthuys said she’s hearing from families who have received time estimates as much as double that.
“I feel very sad, and I feel like we’re letting those families down,” Velthuys told the Free Press. “My fear is that we have so many children who are living in a system that doesn’t understand them, and it then becomes a mental health issue.”
Skipping the line can be costly, she added, with private tests for dyslexia, dysgraphia, dysorthography, dyscalculia and other learning disabilities costing upwards of $1,500 — making them out of reach for some families eager for a diagnosis.
Two of seven Winnipeg-area school divisions provided a current estimate for an assessment in their respective schools: in Pembina Trails, it’s between three and six weeks, once requested; in Seine River, it’s an approximate six-month wait. The latter has a wait list of about nine students.
The other five divisions — Winnipeg, River East Transcona, Louis Riel, Seven Oaks and St. James-Assiniboia — indicated waits vary; more often than not, administrators said priority is assigned based on students’ needs.
“(The pandemic) has increased the need for specialized assessments and increased the challenges for school psychologists to provide direct services,” Cory Cameron, St. James-Assiniboia information officer, said in a statement.
When asked about whether COVID-19 has impacted waits, only St. James-Assiniboia officials explicitly said yes; Pembina Trails said public health guidelines have posed logistic-related challenges.
Winnipeg, River East Transcona and Louis Riel did not directly respond to the question.
Seine River and Seven Oaks said there hasn’t been evidence of pandemic-related disruptions to date.
Nathan Martindale, vice-president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, said psychologists are especially in short supply in rural and northern divisions, but provincewide, assessment wait times put pressure on teachers and support staff who are trying to accommodate students without a diagnosis.
“It was stressful in pre-COVID days, and now it’s 10 times as stressful,” said Martindale, a former resource teacher.
The teachers union recommends some of the federal funding allocated for schooling during the pandemic be spent on both hiring more clinicians and teachers.
“There’s just not enough school psychologists,” said Janice Kuhl, a retired teacher who waited a full year for her granddaughter to get a test that changed the now-Grade 7 student’s life.
Kuhl, Annalee’s primary caregiver, said she began asking teachers about an assessment when she noticed her granddaughter struggling to complete written work in Grade 3.
It’s not that Annalee didn’t know the test answers, Kuhl said, but rather she had difficulty writing them. At the time, Annalee was getting bullied during phys-ed because she had trouble catching balls.
“You have to advocate and advocate and advocate for your child,” said Kuhl, adding she wishes there was more provincial funding available for students with learning disabilities.
Annalee was diagnosed with visual motor and processing challenges, in addition to attention deficit disorder. Information is power, Kuhl said, adding the diagnosis helped Annalee get accommodation — although, the family later enrolled Annalee at an independent school designed for students with learning disabilities.
Once a diagnosis is confirmed, school teams typically collaborate with families to draw up plans to support a student. (Some support may already be in place, if a learning disability is suspected.)
The director of the learning disabilities association champions a quick psychoeducational test turnaround as a way to help families understand challenges and find solutions — in part, so students can rebuild confidence.
While Velthuys said she doesn’t like to use the word “stupid,” it’s one she hears all the time from children with learning disabilities, oftentimes when they are describing how they feel at school.
She suspects more families are seeking tests this year because parents had an opportunity to observe academic learning firsthand during the spring school disruptions.
Her recommendation for those in the queue? “If you suspect your child has a learning disability, treat it like they do.”
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press