Spencer van Vloten: For B.C.’s complex learners back in school, it’s not just about vaccines

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      By Spencer van Vloten

      Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, recently wrote an op-ed in which she tried to persuade parents to ensure that their children, if eligible, are vaccinated before they return to school.

      To be sure, it is a very important issue to raise, and Mooring, who stressed the rise of increasingly dangerous variants, is not the first to do it.

      Despite trying to convince ourselves that we are through the worst, our COVID-19 numbers are among the highest they have been, and with Dr. Bonnie Henry announcing that we could start seeing 1,000 cases a day, nothing suggests they will screech to a halt anytime soon.

      Immunocompromised students are of particular concern, because they are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

      With the return to school, they now find themselves in an in-person classroom setting where the cohort system has been disregarded and students—many with questionable hygienic discipline—are being packed together as if a global pandemic is not happening.

      This creates a heightened sense of anxiety among parents and learners with pre-existing health vulnerabilities, making it increasingly challenging for students with disabilities to direct their attention to their schoolwork, which can already be difficult.

      But the focus on whether students returning to school need to be vaccinated—which has become the hot-button question regarding education in the province—narrows the discussion too much and takes away from other critical issues that must be addressed when it comes to students with complex needs.

      Let’s look at a few of them.

      There is a chronic shortage of education assistants to work with students who have complex learning challenges. School districts already lacked support for students with conditions like autism and Down syndrome, meaning these learners were disadvantaged before the pandemic even started. Students have been proven to do worse when they do not receive support from education and teaching assistants.

      With more students who have complex learning needs now back in the classroom, there is an even greater shortfall of education assistants, who are being stretched far beyond what they can handle in their current numbers.

      There is also a worrying level of rigidity in our education system, which forces students with complex needs into learning environments that they simply will not fit—because these were built for students without disabilities.

      For some, the ideal format might be in-person learning, where they can benefit from greater socialization with their peers; for others it may be a hybrid where they can benefit from in-person socialization while having a greater degree of comfort and control at home on other days.

      And for still others, it may be completely online, where they can learn at a pace that works better for them in the safety of their home. But at most levels of schooling in B.C, this type of choice is nonexistent: students who are wildly different from one another as learners are dumped into the same Procrustean bed and forced to learn the same way, a problem much older than COVID.

      All these issues, in addition to the very legitimate health concerns about students being vaccinated, place a huge burden on parents of students with disabilities.

      Not only is it overwhelmingly stressful, producing constant worry about the well-being of their children, it forces them to become tireless fighters, which, although admirable, is exhausting and not required of parents of nondisabled students.

      Simply put, if their children had no disability, the same effort would not be forced upon them by the shortcomings of our education system.

      So no matter how much we focus on vaccination—and, to reiterate, it is a crucial issue—we are doing a disservice to students with disabilities when we put that above all else, to the exclusion of other concerns.

      It is only one factor among many that will affect the safety of our kids and whether they get the most from their education.

      Merely having students back in classrooms again is nothing special on its own, is not a step in the right direction, and should not be taken as a victory.

      It will be a victory when all B.C. kids can learn in an environment supportive of their particular needs and vulnerabilities, and so far that is not happening.