While most of B.C.’s school-aged children have been in class since last week, special needs children in at least 11 school districts have been told to stay home or attend classes for less than a full day.
That’s what’s happened to one family, who asked to remain anonymous while they work with the Surrey School District to get their five-year-old son into kindergarten for his first day — almost two weeks after classes started.
“He’s off the walls right now,” the parent said. “He doesn’t know what’s going on.” Their son, who has autism, has been having “meltdowns” as he waits for classes to start.
Special needs categories range from physical challenges like requiring a wheelchair to learning differences like dyslexia to neurodiversities like autism.
Since the late 1980s, B.C. education policy has said special needs children should be included in mainstream classrooms.
But every year, some parents of kids with special needs are asked to keep their children at home or pick them up early during the first two weeks of school, says Tracy Humphreys, a volunteer with the BC Parents of Special Needs Children advocacy group.
Last week, Humphreys posted about the issue in the group’s private Facebook page.
In just an hour she received reports from parents in 10 different districts — not including Surrey — who were asked to keep their kids at home or have them picked up early. The districts are Greater Victoria, Abbotsford, Burnaby, Vancouver, Cowichan Valley, Prince Rupert, Langley, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, Chilliwack and North Okanagan-Shuswap.
Some of the parents reported their children were only kept out of school for the first week. Most districts opened schools on Wednesday, Sept. 6.
But in some cases, the delayed return to full school hours is ongoing.
“Every mother or father I’ve ever talked to who has a child with special needs has had their child be told to stay home in the first week at some point, or there’s always a gradual entry,” said Humphreys, who has enrolled her two children with autism in private schools that she says provide better supports.
Sometimes the gradual transition to school is planned by parents, or with their consent. That’s what most of the 10 districts told The Tyee when asked if special needs students were being kept out of school. Without knowing the schools involved, officials said, they could not speak to specific situations.
Abbotsford school board chair Shirley Wilson said in rare occasions a student who requires learning support services — the district does not use the term “special needs” — will not have a plan in place for their support because they came from outside the province, from homeschooling, or had a late kindergarten enrolment.
“If that plan is not in place, it’s in the interest of safety for the student that that student not enter the system, or do a gradual entry to ensure that the proper supports are in place,” said Wilson, adding some schools have provided families with learning kits to help support their child’s entry to the school.
“It’s about the best interests of the student.”
Every district but Prince Rupert replied to The Tyee’s request for comment. Most had similar responses to Abbotsford. Both the Langley and Greater Victoria districts said they had not heard of this happening in their schools.
Victoria superintendent Pieter Langstraat told The Tyee it was never acceptable for schools to tell special needs kids to stay home.
“There’s always a way to welcome the child or student into the school,” said Langstraat, who previously worked as a school principal.
“I certainly understand where the educational program may take a day or two to develop, and [for teachers to] meet with parents to discuss what that’s going to look like,” he said. “But that’s not to say a student shouldn’t be welcomed to the school and there are not things the student could be doing during that time period.”
The Surrey family whose son was waiting to start kindergarten chose to live in the school district because it offers the Applied Behavioural Analysis program, a type of therapy for students with autism. Students who successfully apply to the program are assigned a support worker for anywhere from eight to 28 hours of in-class support per week.
The support workers collaborate with the students’ parents, teachers and at-home support workers to collect in-class data on the students’ progress towards a range of goals, from feeding themselves to cutting paper to going to the grocery store with their parents.
But the Surrey parent alleges the worker assigned to their child refused to collect data and could not keep up with a five-year-old whose autism can manifest in running away and acting out in class.
Until the issue is settled, the family says their school principal asked they keep their son at home for his own safety.
“He doesn’t know kindergarten yet, but he didn’t do well with the transition from preschool to summer, and now summer is just dragging for him,” said the parent. “He just does well with structure.”
In an emailed statement to The Tyee, Doug Strachan, communications services manager for the Surrey district, said all students who applied for Applied Behavioural Analysis support workers this year have had them since school started.
“All that said, there continues to be a shortage” of the specialized support workers, he wrote. “However, we also have [education assistants] who are specifically trained in ABA support supporting students with autism.”
In an emailed statement, Education Minister Rob Fleming echoed the districts’ responses about planned or parent-directed gradual re-entries to the school year.
But Fleming extended sympathy for students who were involuntarily kept from class and asked for patience while the province hires the 3,500 new teachers required to comply with last year’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling that the former government’s 2002 legislation gutting teachers’ contracts was illegal.
“This unprecedented hiring will increase supports provided to students, but there may be some unique situations and challenges this fall,” Fleming’s statement read.
“The addition of new teachers and specialist teachers will mean smaller class sizes, and teachers will have additional resources to develop Individualized Education Plans, which allow students with special needs better access to the learning environment,” the statement said. “School routines are sometimes established in response to the specific needs of students, and additional time may be needed early in the school year to develop those routines.”
But Humphreys said there are special needs students excluded from the first days of class every year. And despite what she believes are the best intentions of schools, many parents she’s spoken to feel they have no choice but to go along.
“Usually because classes haven’t been worked out yet, there’s no support available. It sounds reasonable, right?” said Humphreys. “But this is the same situation we talk about over and over. That’s not inclusion. You wouldn’t say, ‘Every child with blonde hair has to stay home until Monday.’”
It’s not just the students who are affected, said Humphreys. Families are plunged into a “chaotic” start to the school year.
Expecting to have their son in school by now, the Surrey family is struggling to provide him with structure while both parents hold down day jobs. The family is paying their son’s at-home support worker $20 an hour to care for him eight hours a day while waiting for him to be allowed to attend school.
Still, his parents find themselves scrambling to drop their son off at his grandmother’s or working from home when the support worker can’t make it.
This expense comes on top of the $20,000 the family spends annually for their son’s at-home therapy. That price tag will increase to more than $40,000 next July when the $22,000 government subsidy for at-home therapy ends on their son’s sixth birthday.
In the meantime, they’re hoping this week the district can provide more clarity on their son’s future.
But even if their situation is resolved, it could be bad news for another family. All 286 ABA support workers in the district are assigned to children already, so if a worker takes on their son, another student with special needs would lose supports.
Or their son could be assigned an ABA-trained education assistant, who then could be bumped from the position if the district hires more Applied Behavioural Analysis support workers, disrupting their son’s stability at school.
“Basically, what we’re facing is do we keep him out of kindergarten for the year and figure that out? Do we put him back in pre-school for a year? But a lot of these things are out-of-pocket,” the parent said, adding pre-school with a support worker would cost the family another $1,000 per month.
If nothing changes by today (Sept. 18), the parent said, the family will have to make a decision about their son’s future.
“We didn’t expect to have to pay for all of this child care. We didn’t expect to have to pay for another year of pre-school. We were fully expecting him to be in school.”
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