Windsor-Essex parents pleased with in-person special education; teachers remain concerned

·5 min read

While most children in the province continue at-home learning for at least another few weeks, some students with special needs, including those in Windsor-Essex, have already returned to in-person classes.

Nearly two weeks ago on Jan. 4, Windsor-Essex students in special education went back to school. Parents of these students say their children are happier and more productive compared to when they were in online learning.

But some special education teachers are concerned and want enhanced safety measures, according to local president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo.

For parent Valérie Hodgins, in-person classes give her children, who have autism, the structure they need.

Tahmina Aziz/CBC
Tahmina Aziz/CBC

"It's working very well for our family structure and routine," she said. "When they were off for the three weeks at Christmas break, their whole schedule was off. They weren't sleeping right. They just weren't completely themselves.

"They've been back to school for almost two weeks now. They've had successful days. They're back to sleeping normally. They are back to eating properly. Like everything is back to normal for them."

Both her children attend a local Catholic French immersion school.

Hodgins said she communicates with her children's teacher on a daily basis and feels safe knowing her children wear masks and protective eye shields at school.

"They're just happy, and that wasn't the case when they're at home," she said.

Stephanie Seguin is another parent who's grateful to have the option of in-person classes for her daughter, Hazel, who has Down syndrome and attends a Catholic school.

"It's been really awesome for her. She's so happy. We chose to send her half-day. So she goes half-day to school in-person and then she does the rest of the day virtual learning where I sit next to her in the afternoon. So that schedule right now is really working well for her," she said.

Seguin said she feels fortunate she didn't need to fight to have the option of in-person classes — something Joanna Conrad has been trying to get for her five-year-old daughter, who also has Down syndrome.

Conrad said her daughter, who is in senior kindergarten in a public school, is currently doing virtual learning and it's not going well for her.

Tahmina Aziz/CBC
Tahmina Aziz/CBC

"She doesn't want to log on most days. If she does log on in the morning, it's four or five to 10 minutes max. It's very difficult for her to participate unless I'm sitting right beside her. And even then, she tunes out. She says, 'OK, bye-bye. And she turns it off and out," she said.

'A lot of distraction at home,' says one parent

"For me to work on activities with her in the home is also very challenging. There's a lot of distraction. You know, most parents don't understand unless they have a child with special needs, what it means to try to support your child," she said.

Conrad said her daughter requires special supports that are not available at home.

She said she's contacted the board to try and get her daughter back in-class, but was told that isn't an option for students in kindergarten.

She's waiting to hear from Mike Wilcox, the superintendent of special education with the Greater Essex County District School Board, for an answer.

Wilcox told CBC News that he cannot speak to any specific situation as it would breach confidentiality, but said there are some students "who may be senior kindergarten age" attending classes in-person.

"Right now, we are supporting our students with our most complex needs and we have lots of supports in place for those students who are not in in-person learning," he said.

"We have speech and language [supports] and psychologists who are completing assessments in-person and online. So we have lots of supports there for our students with special education needs ranging from, you know, JK to to Grade 12."

Tahmina Aziz/CBC
Tahmina Aziz/CBC

He said he recommends that parents who have concerns contact the principal of their school to find a way that the special education department can further support their child.

Wilcox also said in-person classes for students with special needs are going well, adding that 73 per cent of those who were attending in-person classes before the holidays have returned.

In an email statement to CBC News, Stephen Fields, the communications coordinator with Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, said if students with special needs cannot be accommodated through remote learning, they are allowed to attend school.

The statement in part reads, "there is no congregation of students with special needs in one location, and in many cases there might be only one or two students in the classroom."

"At the secondary level, those students with special needs who elected to attend school would go to their Life Skills rooms the way they always would. These are usually smaller groups of students (around seven or eight)."

He said the board continues to follow public health guidelines by "mandating the use of PPE for staff, masking for students, appropriate distancing and regular hand hygiene."

Teachers concerned

Spagnuolo said special education teachers who he spoke with on Wednesday raised concerns about in-person learning.

He said they're afraid to speak out in fear of reprisal from their employer, but have flagged that they want some changes made to how in-person learning is conducted.

"Some of the things that we're looking for is more enhanced PPE, better cleaning and enhanced cleaning products in these classrooms," he said, adding they also want better screening protocols, air ventilation and assessments.

"Also to see if we can get any higher priority for these teachers that are continuing to work in these buildings in terms of vaccinations for those that choose to ask to be vaccinated," he said. "They're on the front lines currently and they need to have access to that vaccination as soon as possible."

While special education teachers understand the need to teach students with special needs in-person, Spagnuolo said they would like to be included and heard in the decision-making process.

"I think that's the least that the government in the school board could do, is include these teachers in the decision making," he said.