By Marilyn Dolmage
Despite the evident harm of segregation, we see more obstacles to inclusion. On top of dealing with Covid-related financial and other struggles like everyone else, it has been more difficult than it already was for people to receive support in their own homes. Risk of contracting Covid has often inhibited inclusive community relationships, participation and contribution.
Families have had to make the difficult choice: either to send their sons and daughters to school despite safety concerns and restrictions, or to support them in virtual classes on-line. Parents who are essential workers may send students to school because they have no childcare support. Parents may feel overwhelmed by the effort required of them to support their child’s remote learning, especially while working from home. Students with disabilities often face greater safety concerns and require more assistance. Some students have not been properly accommodated in either in-person or remote education – and may not be receiving education at all.
Too often during the past 14 months, the government’s response has been to assume that people with disabilities are segregated from society, and should be.
It is especially important to advocate – now - for the inclusion of children and adults with disabilities and their families. IAI can support families to seek accommodations during the pandemic and to avoid making decisions now that might compromise their child’s future education and opportunities. IAI Chapters and Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) reps can monitor and advise school boards. Some issues will require IAI to take action at the provincial level.
On April 11th, Education Minister Steen Lecce announced schools would reopen after this week’s school holiday. On April 12th, he announced that they would be closed, indefinitely.
On April 13th, the Minister and Deputy Minister of Education sent a memo to all school board Chairs and Directors announcing that Ontario’s “elementary and secondary school students province-wide will participate in remote learning following the April Break.” If teachers need to go into schools, the Ministry says they must remain isolated from each other.
However, the Minister added, “As part of our Government’s efforts to protect the most vulnerable, boards are expected to make provisions for in-person support for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated through remote learning based on student needs.”
It’s alarming that the government says it will “protect” the students most at risk by sending them to schools they have deemed unsafe for all other students and staff, especially when those students will be clustered in segregated classes and schools.
No family should feel forced to send a student to an unsafe segregated class because they have been denied accommodations in virtual classes.
Especially when schools have been deemed unsafe, there is a great need to ensure effective, respectful, individualized accommodations so that ANY student can benefit from remote learning.
A December 10/20 EDU memo re “School-Based Health and Rehabilitation Services” states this overarching legal responsibility of school boards: “School boards have a duty to accommodate students with special education needs and to provide meaningful access to education up to the point of undue hardship.”
That “duty to accommodate” is defined in the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities: “The duty to accommodate is informed by three principles: respect for dignity, individualization, as well as integration and full participation”.
It is appalling that the Ministry is calling in-person attendance in unsafe schools an “accommodation”, when schools have a responsibility to provide accommodations that promote both safety and inclusion and prevent segregation.
The Ministry says, “School boards are best positioned to determine which students with special education needs may require” in-person attendance in unsafe schools. However, OHRC says, “The duty to accommodate is a multi-party, collaborative process” and “education providers need to provide an effective and transparent process to resolve disputes that arise in the accommodation process” – not make decisions unilaterally.
As detailed here through PPM 164, the Ministry indicates, “Remote learning will be provided for all students in alignment with Policy/Program Memorandum (PPM) No.164: Requirements for Remote Learning. This PPM makes clear very specific standards for instruction of synchronous learning so that parents and students know what to expect and there is a consistent approach across the province to ensure students are fully engaged in their learning”.
This PPM says teachers should “provide differentiated support to all students” and “continue to provide accommodations, modified expectations, and alternative programming to students with special education needs, as detailed in their IEPs. If it is not possible to meet a student's needs through synchronous learning, educators and families will work together to find solutions.”
Whether or not they have been identified “exceptional” by an Identification Placement Review Committee, the Ministry says, “Boards must ensure that plans are in place to support students with special education needs to learn remotely that leverage the capacity of education workers and board professionals (e.g. behavioural experts, speech language pathologists, and other professionals) to support remote learning.” What are such staff actually doing to ensure that students are fully accommodated and benefiting from remote learning?
It is really clear that someone at home needs to act as intervener to support students with disabilities in on-line classes. Of course, we would want to encourage direct student/teacher communication, but someone may need to sometimes amplify or augment the student's "voice", especially when they communicate in ways other than verbally and when required accommodations are not provided.
A Waterloo Region District School Board “Code of Conduct” seems to require certain behaviour from the folks at home, without promising anything from the teachers. Despite the fact that some students need help to communicate with their teachers, especially when the technology provided to do so may be totally inadequate, this board says:
The Ministry is creating a Guide for Remote Learning for students with special education needs, in consultation with Jess Whitley at the University of Ottawa, who is an Associate with Inclusive Education Canada. It is expected to be out by late spring - which is rather late when it was surely needed a year ago.
However, maybe this will be much more necessary in future years, since according to a CBC news article, “Ontario is mulling legislation that would make online education a permanent part of the public school system” in three forms:
This seems to contradict earlier positions of government. Even as risks increased during the pandemic, the Minister said schools should remain open because of the social and emotional benefits of in-school learning. Many experts have said that the isolation of on-line learning threatens student mental health.
But as we have seen between April 11th and 13th, political positions about education can change rapidly. The Ministry presentation said on-line learning promotes “choice”, “quality” and “equity”. However, the experiences of students with disabilities and their families during Covid raise serious concerns for the future. If reports are true, there will be an ongoing need to improve accommodations in remote learning, as well as to promote effective inclusion in all Ontario schools.
Marilyn Dolmage M.S.W. assists schools and families to work together to improve education for students of all abilities. She communicates with a broad network across Ontario concerning the law, provincial policies, educational practices, research and advocacy strategies. She led a series of projects for The Ontario Coalition for Inclusive Education since 1995. She is an Associate, with Inclusive Education Canada. Marilyn works alongside people with disabilities and their families to end segregation, promote effective inclusion and create new support relationships. She led the class action and settlement, concerning abuses at Huronia Regional Centre, an Ontario government institution. The insights of Marilyn’s three children have given her hope for the future. Her family struggled to ensure they attended school together, and to assist her older son to have the education, medical treatment, employment and community life he wanted. Matthew’s sudden death in 2004 – at the age of 29 – has heightened her resolve to improve policy and strengthen families, schools and communities.