Lazy summer afternoons, supplies shopping, back to school jitters. In any given year, this is what the end of August looks like for parents and their school-aged children.
But for parents of children with learning or physical disabilities or diverse learning needs, this is also a time of increased anxiety as they work with schools and districts to map out their children’s special educational requirements.
This year, their back to school anxiety has been compounded by concerns about what a return to school in the middle of a pandemic will mean for their children’s learning needs.
Fear of exclusion and segregation
A survey conducted in early August by Inclusion BC, the Family Support Institute of BC, BCEdAccess, and BC Parents of Complex Kids found that over a third of students with learning disabilities reported that fear of exclusion and segregation were among their main concerns when going back to school this September.
This was an important takeaway from the survey for Inclusion BC Executive Director Karla Verschoor. For the longtime advocate, hearing the concerns of families and students themselves was important since the Ministry of Education’s rollout plan failed to include any plan for students with learning disabilities despite Inclusion BC and other advocacy groups’ ongoing work with the Ministry.
“We have been working weekly with the Ministry of Education on creating planning tools for families. It was some strong work, but it did not make its way into the restart plan, which was a disappointment to us,” affirms Verschoor. The lack of mention of a plan for children with diverse learning needs “created a bit of a wave of panic” among families and advocates.
She hopes that the survey findings, which also reveal a deep concern for the health and safety of students and their at-risk family members, are incorporated into any future planning involving students with disabilities.
No confidence and no support
Kim Weber, a legal assistant and mom of two in Port Coquitlam is feeling the lack of support from her school district and the Ministry’s plan.
“Even from before [the pandemic], there’s just not enough supports in place to support children that have learning problems, and so with this added layer, it’s just like they are totally forgotten about,” Weber says. “Everything is so focused on getting everyone back to school as safely as they can way and any other special resources, they’re way down the list,” she adds.
Weber’s eldest son, Alex (named changed to protect his privacy), is 17 and has been diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), severe social anxiety, and selective mutism. His younger brother Max (name also changed), 11, also experiences some learning challenges and struggled to keep up when schools went online after the lockdown.
After requesting and failing to receive any support from Alex’s high school, Weber and her husband decided to register Alex at the SelfDesign Learning Community, a foundation that offers personalized and flexible learning options for students throughout BC. The current waitlist for enrollment for online schooling is 1,200 students. To Weber’s relief, Alex will be added to a separate list of students with special needs, one that she is hopeful will be much shorter.
Still, two weeks before the start of school, not much is certain for her family as they are also considering whether to send seventh grader Max back to school. “So far, it looks like we’ll put him back in the classroom, but it depends on the COVID numbers and how that’s going too,” she notes.
Flexibility is key
Tracy Humphreys is a mom of three in Victoria, BC. Two of her children, both high schoolers, have been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and generalized anxiety disorder.
However, Humphreys is also the Founder and Chair of BCEdAccess, an organization serving families of students with disabilities and complex learners, which gives her a unique perspective regarding the needs of her children as well as the work that has been happening behind the scenes at the Ministry of Education and the school districts and schools levels. For Humphreys, flexibility in planning is key.
“We need flexibility because every child is different and what works for one child is not going to work for the next one; it’s really difficult to plan,” she explains. She experienced this herself at the beginning of the pandemic when schools had to close. While one of her children loved the move to online learning, the other “probably wouldn’t do school if they couldn’t go,” she explains.
While Humphrey admits she is doing better than most parents thanks to her up-close work and knowledge of the field, she understands that others may not be feeling as positive about the back to school plans. But how can parents feel more confident about their children’s education plans for the upcoming school year?
“I keep coming back to those conversations with individual families. [The] schools and districts, they know who those families are who need the outreach, and I’m hoping that they’re doing that at this stage now that they have a plan in place,” she says, adding that the first step every school needs to take is “to reach out to those families and help them to figure out the best plans for their kids.”
Furthermore, as Humphreys explains, the best path for schools would be to start with the most complex or challenging situations and build around that.
“If they can accommodate that, then they should be able to support every student really well,” she concludes.