Saskatchewan parents, teachers say learning supports lacking for students with intensive needs

The parents of Kristina Wilson say the nine-year-old requires constant, one-on-one attention in the classroom that she wasn't receiving prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Derek Putz / Global News

As Saskatchewan school divisions make plans for the upcoming year, some parents and teachers are calling for more learning supports in the classroom.

Terra Wilson began advocating for her daughter, Kristina, who she says wasn’t getting the necessary help in class even before the coronavirus pandemic impacted schools.

“She needs more attention at school and more one-on-one time,” Wilson said.

“Because if she’s left in a Grade 3 — now Grade 4 — classroom to kind of follow along with what she can, she gets up and walks out of the classroom and disappears for 20 minutes at a time.”

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Wilson said while doctors have diagnosed Kristina with an intellectual disability, the family is still learning more about her additional needs.

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Wilson and her husband know Kristina has the potential to learn with the right conditions, experiencing it for themselves when the coronavirus pandemic forced Saskatchewan schools to close mid-March.

“With my help homeschooling her, with Doug’s help homeschooling her, she can count by five, she can count by 10,” Wilson said. “She’s starting to read basic books. So tons of potential, she just needs that extra help.”

But Wilson noted she can’t work full-time from home this fall and continue to homeschool her daughter.

Kristina was given a modified learning plan last fall, where her teachers outlined three goals for her school year. Wilson said her daughter met one of those goals.

“Our teachers are doing the best they can, our schools are doing the best they can, and there’s only so much you can do with the little resources that you have,” she said.

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Wilson said she began contacting the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education last fall, trying to find more resources and possible in-school supports for Kristina.

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In a response letter last November obtained by Global News, Minister Gord Wyant discussed the role school divisions play in allocating resources, and named two outside organizations as possible supports – both of which do not address in-school needs.

“We have different programs for children with different disabilities in the school, but there’s nothing for that in between and they’re just put in an age-appropriate class and Kristina can’t follow along,” Wilson said.

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“I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve spoken to. Different school districts, different psychologists, psychiatrists, you name it … I’ve been through 10 months of this, and I’m still at the same place I started.”

Wilson and the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) told Global News they are concerned the lack of resources pre-pandemic will add more strain to teachers’ time and school budgets this fall.

“Lots of students who have special needs, their needs weren’t being met before the pandemic and the pandemic is just going to make the situation amplified,” said Patrick Maze, STF president.

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“School divisions have been chronically underfunded for over the last decade. So we’ve seen enrolment creep up, and we’ve seen staff diminish, specialty staff diminish,” he added.

Maze said teachers have expressed frustration to the STF in seeing the provincial government allocate millions to improving sports fields or pledge for a now-failed bid to host the Canadian Football League.

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“There’s money out there, it’s the decisions that we’re making. We need to prioritize our students, they are our future,” he said.

Ministry of Education touts funding boost

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Education responded to Global News in an email, stating the government is supporting the sector with the highest school budget in the province’s history.

“Saskatchewan’s 27 school divisions will receive $1.94 billion in school operating funding for the 2020-21 school year. This is an increase of $42.1 million over last year’s funding amount,” the statement read.

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The STF countered that, saying with the highest enrolment in Saskatchewan history, it would expect the operating budget, which includes capital costs, to be the highest.

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This increase does not cover increases in student enrolment, let alone increased costs of goods and services, according to the STF.

According to the ministry, “school divisions saved about $40 million as a result of the in-school learning suspension earlier this year, and have indicated they will use this funding for any costs associated with a safe return to school.’

The ministry also noted unconditional funding to school divisions for supports for learning in the 2020-21 school year is $289.1 million, an increase of $3.3 million from 2019-20.

That funding covers students from pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12.

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“School divisions are responsible for deciding how those funds will be disbursed, as they are in the best position to address the needs of their students,” the ministry stated, adding there are guidelines that school divisions will provide support to students with additional needs.

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“Engagements between staff and students will occur in an appropriate space, which may include the school. Alternative methods of providing service or additional precautions may be suggested for those with compromised immune systems, in consultation with a medical professional.”

The ministry noted that, at this time, no school division had requested additional funding for COVID-19-related items.

According to the STF, many school divisions are having to consider where to make cuts, with the majority running deficits the last two years.

It noted 25 out of 27 school divisions, or 92.6 per cent, experienced deficits in 2019-20. More than 92 per cent of school divisions experienced deficits since 2017-18.

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Global News reached out to Regina Public Schools, the division which oversees the school Wilson’s daughter attends.

“We have a working group that’s been set up to work with how we’re going to support students with intensive needs in these COVID times,” said Terry Lazarou, the supervisor of communications for Regina Public Schools.

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“It’s a full spectrum of plans and activities to address those students’ needs. But what those plans are haven’t been released yet.”

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Lazarou said the plans will be released sooner rather than later, pending approval from the ministry. He noted the division had heard from concerned parents, but can’t provide further details to them at this time.

“We’re constantly looking at how we can deliver programs in ways that benefit the students first. For obvious financial and other reasons, we can’t always do that and we do work with partners to help us deliver the programming,” Lazarou said.

He encouraged people with concerns about their children’s education to reach out to the school division directly. The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation urges parents to contact their local elected officials.

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