Durham families fear COVID-19 effect on autistic children’s education

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WATCH: As the school year continues to approach, families who have children with autism say they've been left in a difficult situation. – Aug 26, 2020

Just days away from the start of the 2020/21 school year, families in Ontario’s Durham Region who have children with autism say they’re concerned about how the coronavirus pandemic will affect their students in the long term.

According to Tara Stone, a Whitby, Ont., mother and autism advocate, ongoing uncertainty the spread of the virus, and about whether or not COVID-19 protocols have limited the supports needed by their kids, has many parents opting to keep their kids at home.

“People are having to make a decision between income, going back to work and sending their children to school,” Stone said.

Stone is choosing not to send her autistic eight-year-old son, Aiden, back to school. Instead, he will be learning from home.

Read more: Durham autism community responds to PC’s needs-based program announcement

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“Parents are supposed to be parents. Parents aren’t supposed to be therapists; parents aren’t supposed to be teachers,” she said.

But Stone says many families will be forced to take on those roles, to meet the additional support needed by students who physically can’t go back to school because they are immunocompromised.

The autism advocate says a community already taxed from fighting for access to needs-based therapy is now being consumed with the fragility of their child’s quality of education.

“It’s always been a struggle for us to get those supports for our children in the school system,” Stone said.

“To be able to send our children back to school with such uncertainty, it’s almost impossible for many of these families.”

Watch: COVID-19 pandemic impacting Durham autism families

Mary Fowler, president of Durham’s local elementary teachers’ union says learning from home will be difficult for children with special needs, as they won’t be “face-to-face with [support staff].” She says another issue is students not having access to “sensory rooms or other locations in the school like calming rooms — that is going to be a real challenge.”
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Stone says there’s insufficient planning around EA support, transportation, PPE and whether autistic kids will still have the supports they used to when they return to school.

The province says the onus is on school boards to plan for students with special needs.

The DDSB told Global News “School staff and inclusive student services will collaborate with families to plan programming, accommodations and supports.”

The board also says students who are learning from home “will not lose their spot in special education placements and will continue to receive programming.”

Watch: Durham autism families remain concerned about healthcare

But Stone says that isn’t enough, and families fear at-home learning will ultimately have a long-term impact on their child’s development.

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“These children are behind as it already is in many cases, and this just pulls them further and further behind,” she said.

“The chance of catching up is further stretched away for many families.”