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Parents of Alberta students with disabilities worry about return to school

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WATCH ABOVE: As the Alberta government and school boards prepare for a return to class, some parents of children with disabilities say they're being left out of planning. Fletcher Kent shares their concerns.

Some parents say they feel Alberta’s government isn’t specifically considering special needs students in its back-to-school plan.

Two parents joined the Opposition NDP at a news conference about the issue on Wednesday afternoon.

Erin Schaefer is a mother of two children. Her son Macolm suffers from hypotonia which slows muscle function. Malcolm is scheduled to start kindergarten this year but Schaefer isn’t sure if that’s best.

“I wish I had more answers,” Schaefer said. “I wish I knew what to do next. This government is shrugging instead of leading and passing the buck to school boards.”

Tiffaney Hill’s son Riley has extreme sensory sensitivity and an anxiety disorder. She too is uneasy.

“I’m not sure what choices I’m being left with here,” Hill said. “I’m looking for answers from the government and so far I’ve got nothing.”

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The NDP says the UCP government is to blame for the anxiety of parents and students.

The Opposition points to a decision during the COVID-19 pandemic to cut funding earmarked — in part — for educational assistants. Those workers were largely tasked with helping students with disabilities. Government has since restored that funding but the NDP says several boards aren’t able to hire back all the EAs now because of broader budget crunches.

The Opposition also criticizes changes to Program Unit Funding (PUF). The money is designed to aid students with disabilities. Earlier this year, kindergarten students became ineligible for the money and will be supported through other programs.

READ MORE: Edmonton Public School Board says changes to education funding will impact students with disabilities

“The UCP government is letting down these students,” NDP Education Critic Sarah Hoffman said. “This year — probably — will be one of the hardest years of their lives.”

Inclusion Alberta works with children with disabilities and their families. The group says it too is concerned about the coming school year. It has heard little from schools and government.

“The biggest fear is kids with disabilities are going to be left behind,” Wendy McDonald said.

“I’m confident that school districts do have a plan for students with disabilities. We’re just not clear what that plan is.”

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READ MORE: Alberta education minister will not reverse decision on layoffs amid COVID-19 pandemic

McDonald said mask rules ought to be different for special needs kids. Education assistants may be required at students’ homes to help with learning and to protect immune-compromised children.

She’s also concerned with what she’s hearing from some members of Inclusion Alberta.

“They’re being told that their children will have to go to special education classrooms because of budget concerns,” McDonald said.

“We vehemently disagree with that approach. We know the best outcomes for all students is when they’re in a regular classroom with all students.”

The province says such concerns are unfounded and that help for children with disabilities will be there when classes resume this fall.

“Ensuring the safety and well-being of our staff and students, including students with disabilities, has guided all decision-making around school re-entry since we first cancelled in-person classes in March,” Colin Aitchison, a spokesperson for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said in a statement.

Aitchison said the province has restored “the temporary education funding adjustments for COVID-19.”

“If school authorities are not restoring staffing levels and services to pre-pandemic levels, they are doing this despite receiving full funding, and receiving increases in operational funding from the province for the upcoming year.”

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Such reassurances aren’t helping some parents.

Anxiety remains over whether to send them back or not.

Schaefer said she agonizes with her decision.

“I do not want my son’s first experience of school to be one of uncertainty or fear in a possible life-or-death situation.”