Patti Bacchus: Kids with special needs are being left behind—again

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      When Premier John Horgan and Education Minister Rob Fleming announced on May 15 that B.C. schools would open for optional in-class instruction on June 1, they said students “needing additional support” would have the option to attend school full-time.

      It’s part of the government’s five-stage K-12 Education Restart Plan, which to date has limited in-class instruction to children of essential-services workers, students with “disabilities/diverse needs”, and those who require additional supports.

      We’ve been in stage four of the K-12 plan since the middle of March, and we’re moving to stage three next week (it moves in reverse, like a countdown: stage five is a total suspension of instruction and stage one is everyone back in class).

      Starting June 1, parents of students in kindergarten through Grade 5 have the option to send their kids to school two or three days a week, while students in grades six through 12 can go the equivalent of one day a week.

      Stage three also says students with disabilities and those who require additional supports will have the option to attend full-time, but several parents of kids with special needs tell me they were never offered that option and didn’t know they could ask for it.

      Presumably, government recognizes that many students with disabilities can’t learn from home in a meaningful way and need in-class instruction to prevent them from falling behind, hence directing that full-time, in-class instruction be provided.

      Yet when school districts, including the two largest—Vancouver and Surrey—sent letters to parents about a survey asking if they would be sending their kids back part-time, they failed to mention that kids with special needs have the option to attend full-time. They did remember to mention, however, that children of essential-services workers could have their children scheduled for up to five days a week of instruction.

      By early this week, Surrey’s superintendent of schools posted a video that included the information. Better late than never.

      Martin Dunphy

      A spokesperson for the Vancouver School Board told me they mentioned essential-services workers’ kids because they don’t have that information on file, implying, perhaps that because they know which students have special needs, they don’t need to ask. Yet several Vancouver parents of kids with special needs told me this week no one has informed them their kids could have been attending school full-time or can start next week.

      Some say they’ve asked and been told their kids can only attend part-time.

      I also spoke to a Chilliwack parent this week who told me that not only did her school district fail to inform her that her son—who is on the autism spectrum and hasn’t been able to participate successfully (or much at all) in remote learning—could go to school full-time starting next week, they told her that the most they could offer was two days a week.

      She said that since schools closed to on-site learning in mid-March, her son has had one meeting with the education assistant who usually supports him, and it was just a friendly conversation with no attempt to engage in learning.

      “Kids with special needs are being pushed to the bottom of the pile,” the Chilliwack parent (who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution from the school district) told me by phone. “Our kids aren’t learning. We have to be teacher, therapist, education assistant, and parent as well as supporting our other kids’ remote learning.”

      I heard the same message from parents in several districts, although one in Burnaby said her district had informed her of the option to attend full-time and the North Vancouver district informed parents of the option in a letter. Kudos to them.

      A Vancouver parent of a student with Down syndrome told me she’d heard nothing about the option for her child to attend school full-time until I told her about it this week. This isn’t good enough.

      I checked with the Ministry of Education to get clarification, and they advised me by email on May 26: “All school districts have been directed to provide opportunities for full-time in-school instruction for students with special needs (disabilities/diverse abilities) and those requiring extra supports. It’s our expectation this is occurring.”


      So here we go again, where parents of kids with special needs, who have enough on their plates already, have to advocate and agitate to get their kids the support they need or risk them having them fall further behind.

      Maybe it’s time for the Ministry of Education to make sure districts are complying when it comes to students with special needs instead of simply “expecting” it.

      Inclusion can’t be only when it’s convenient

      I worked for the Richmond school district in the 1980s, when the move to include and integrate students with special needs into neighbourhood public schools was still a new concept. Up until then, they’d mainly been in segregated schools or programs.

      It was an exciting and optimistic time. I remember the tears of happiness in people’s eyes when I visited one of the first integrated classrooms. We didn’t realize what an uphill struggle it would be for decades to come.

      Over the years, we moved away from the term “integration” and to “inclusion,” which is a more flexible term. It signals that being part of the school doesn’t necessarily mean being integrated in regular classrooms one hundred percent of the time. Rather, it means being included as much as the student can benefit and always be considered part of the school community—as any other student is. It means getting the support they need to learn and reach their full potential.

      Inclusion is an all-the-time thing, and not just an afterthought or a when-it’s-convenient concept. It’s never acceptable to exclude a student with a disability because accommodating their needs isn’t convenient. It often means giving that student more support than others are getting because that’s what they need to be able to learn.

      It means that if government says students with special needs have the option to attend schools full-time (to ensure that they aren’t disproportionately negatively affected by COVID-19 school closures) that their school districts make sure their parents know about the option and provide it to them.

      Parents shouldn’t have to still be fighting for the things their children require to be successfully included in school. Yet here we are, in 2020. Good grief.

      If you’re a parent of a student with special needs and you believe your child would benefit from being back in class full-time in June, let your child’s school principal know that and ask what the plan will be to support your child. Don’t accept “no” for an answer.

      A better plan

      It’s easy for me to say what the government and school districts could have done better in K-12 during this pandemic, so here goes.

      Given the outcries I’ve been hearing from teachers about their concerns about being ready to be back in class next week, I believe the focus should have been on getting kids there who really need to be back to class and letting the rest finish the school year remotely.

      There also should have been a focus on setting up optional in-person summer programming for students who haven’t been successful learning remotely.

      Teachers know which students haven’t been able to engage from home successfully, and they could refer those students to funded summer programs in local schools. They could set up large outdoor tents—the kind usually used for summer weddings and other events. Lots of those will be available this summer as so many events are cancelled. They’d make great shelters for outdoor classrooms, which would be safer in terms of reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission, compared with poorly ventilated classrooms.

      Teachers could have the option of applying for those summer jobs, but no one would be forced to take them. That would go over a lot better than what’s happening now, where many teachers are alarmed about being directed back to schools that won’t require masks or assure physical distancing.

      No excuses

      Kids with disabilities or other special learning needs have as much of a right to have their educational needs met as anyone else. A pandemic is no excuse to say they can’t be supported. Just like in regular times, when students with special needs sometimes get sent home due to a lack of staff, denying them their chance to learn in class right now is discriminatory in its own way.

      If there aren’t enough staff available to teach and supervise all kids, try sending some of the others home for once and stop pushing kids with special needs to the bottom of the pile.

      Enough is enough.


      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.