Students with complex needs return to New Brunswick classrooms on limited basis

Tiffany Donnelly, right, and daughter Desiree are preparing for Desiree's return to school in Saint John, New Brunswick. Tim Roszell/Global News

Students with complex needs are heading back to school in New Brunswick.

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development launched a program this week to identify and invite select students to return to the classroom on a limited basis.

That’s music to the ears of Tiffany Donnelly.

Her daughter, Desiree, is affected by autism and developmental delays, as well as heart and kidney conditions. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had support workers inside and outside of school.

Donnelly said it’s been difficult to explain the pandemic to her.

“She was very angry,” Donnelly began. “She still is. She doesn’t understand. She misses her friends. She misses her (educational assistant) who she loves to death. She misses her support worker who she loves to death.

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“And the only person to blame is me because she just doesn’t understand.”

Donnelly said Desiree, a Grade 2 student at Seaside Park Elementary School in Saint John, was progressing well in school in a number of areas prior to the pandemic, but she has noticed regression.

She said she’s prone to lashing out, which has affected her three other children.

Desiree’s return to school will consist of one-hour visits twice a week, and going back, Donnelly said, will be “huge” for her.

“Not only is this giving her a little bit of structure, a little bit of her normal,” Donnelly said, “but this going to give her a glimpse into what it’s going to look like in September, because this could be our new normal.

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“And it’s going to be a lot of adjusting, even for a child without autism or without development delays.”

Dominic Cardy, New Brunswick’s Education and Early Childhood Development Minister, said the plan involves a low number of students, but was not sure of the exact number eligible to return.

Cardy said there were specific criteria used to identify students who would benefit by getting back to the classroom, even briefly. He said parents would also benefit from “a break” because many have had limited or no support resources for several weeks.

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And he said the status of the pandemic in New Brunswick was a critical factor.

“This was about, again, as we’ve been trying to throughout this pandemic so far, balancing the risks versus rewards in every single decision we make,” Cardy said.

“And in this case, again, it was felt that with the small number of students, this was the appropriate and fair thing to do.”

Click to play video: 'Dominic Cardy discusses future of education in New Brunswick'
Dominic Cardy discusses future of education in New Brunswick

Sensory Friendly Solutions founder Christel Seeberger, a longtime Saint John-area occupational therapist, believes there are positives for both educators and students, immediately and looking ahead to the fall.

“(Students with complex needs) have a lot more missed opportunities in daily life for learning and engagement and development because of the level of care they require, the level of medical care and health interventions that they need,” Seeberger said.

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“So this a really positive opportunity to try to give them access to those experiences that are so critical for their development.”

It is not mandatory for students to attend, but once families agree to have their children participate, they are expected to be in school. Some families are opting out of the program because it would involve more life disruptions for a very short period of time.

Lisa Morissette’s daughter, Sophie, has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and is tube-fed. Her family uses a specially-modified, wheelchair-accessible van to travel.

Prior to the pandemic, Morissette said Sophie had a team of three support workers assisting her at home, and other workers at school. Since the COVID-19 shutdown, she said they’ve kept just one worker.

But Morissette said the pandemic has meant a much slower pace for her family, especially in the mornings.

After speaking with officials about bringing Sophie to school, she said she’s opting out.

“She said it would be an hour or so for this week and maybe an hour or so next week,” Morissette said. “So, for Sophie, with all that work just to get her someplace, it just didn’t make sense.”

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Cardy said the students will continue to attend school until the third week of June.

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