Special-ed students, families being tested

Special to Western News

Ontario students have been out of the classroom since March 16, when March Break was initially extended two weeks to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Last week, the date for even a possible return was pushed to May 4.

Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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Kids with special-education needs are not alone in suffering the impacts of a prolonged absence from the classroom – the whole family needs to be considered, stresses a leading educator in inclusive education.

Ontario students have been out of the classroom since March 16, when March Break was initially extended two weeks to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Last week, the date for even a possible return was pushed to May 4.

To stem the educational losses during this unprecedented closure, online learning began across the province this week.

But that is not a complete solution for every student and family, said Jacqueline Specht, Director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education.

Thousands of kids across the region – ranging from ones who are gifted or have learning disabilities, to ones with autism and physical disabilities – receive individualized support in the classroom. Accommodations in Individual Education Plans (IEPs) may range from enrichment programming to text-to-speech computer apps to behavioural guidance to feeding help from an educational assistant.

Now, that valued in-person support is gone. Its loss is likely to be a jolt to the entire family, Specht said.

While the needs at home are as unique as each child, Specht said parents need as much educational, health and emotional support as their children.

“I worry about families as a whole because of the pressure on them,” she said. “Parents who are struggling, who work from home or work outside the home and who need support as they work – I don’t even know how they do that.”

Kids with behavioural or physical challenges, for example, not only aren’t getting the same educational support they’re used to, their families are sometimes working around the clock, without respite, to find a new equilibrium.

She said families may need to connect more than ever, online, with child peers and with parent and sibling support groups. This is when home-and-school connections become even more vital, she said, and where regular video, email and phone check-ins by teachers and educational assistants become key.

If assigned material is causing frustration or meltdowns, it’s important child and parent communicate that it’s not working. “The teacher needs to hear that.”

At times like this, Specht emphasized, learning becomes secondary to connecting and communicating. “It’s not one or two kids who are falling behind. It’s everyone. If this turns out to be a bizarre time for learning, I hope we get that it’s OK.”

She said there’s a message in there about work expectations, too.

“Employers have to be flexible; they have to understand. When your employee comes into an office for eight hours a day, they don’t have those distractions. I don’t think it makes sense to expect so much from a parent or from anyone. We all just have to be kinder and flexible and understanding right now.”