Giant Steps school parents want access to COVID-19 pilot project

Click to play video: 'Montreal special needs school shut out from vaccination program'
Montreal special needs school shut out from vaccination program
WATCH: Parents of children who attend Giant Steps school in Cote-St-Luc are upset that their children have been excluded from a vaccination pilot project in the area. Families of children who attend the school say they are among the most vulnerable to contract the virus and need to be protected. Global's Amanda Jelowicki has more. – Mar 26, 2021

Parents at Giant Steps school for children with autism in Montreal say they are bitterly disappointed their community isn’t being given access to a COVID-19 vaccination pilot project in the area.

“I was infuriated, that is the only way to put it,” said parent Josh Zangwill. “When you look behind me, everything behind me is Côte-Saint-Luc Road.  We are literally on the wrong side of the tracks.”

Giant Steps school sits in Montreal West, next to Côte Saint-Luc. Only 90 students attend the specialized elementary and high school.

Last week, Montreal public health launched a pilot project in the Côte Saint-Luc and Plamondon areas to try and quash a rapidly-spreading outbreak of a COVID-19 variant. Parents and educators at almost 30 schools and more than 50 daycares became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

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The pilot project was allocated 15,000 doses; 13,000 parents made appointments, so public health expanded the program this week to include another nine schools. But Giant Steps didn’t make the list.

A spokesman for Montreal public health said no exceptions were made, and that only schools within three postal codes were included in the project.

But parents at Giant Steps say their institution is an essential service, and the community is particularly vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks.

“We are the most vulnerable school on the Island. I would challenge anyone to tell me differently,” said Zangwill. “Most of [the students] don’t wear masks, they don’t or can’t respect social distancing guidelines. Virtual learning at home is virtually impossible.”
Click to play video: 'How those with autism are handling the COVID-19 outbreak'
How those with autism are handling the COVID-19 outbreak

Parent Valerie Vaillancourt says the school helps her daughter Gia enormously. She’s isn’t verbal and puts everything in her mouth, so she’s particularly vulnerable to getting hurt without supervision.

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“It’s a very big relief for me that she is there, she wouldn’t fit in anywhere else,” Vaillancourt said.

Vaillancourt says because wearing a mask and respecting social distancing guidelines is especially difficult for children with autism, they are more vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks.

The illness spread rapidly through the school in February, with 15 children catching it. The school was shut for two weeks.

Vaillancourt worries with the recent spread of variants in the area, a school outbreak and shutdown could happen again. She says having kids at home for two weeks who can’t learn online is especially challenging.

“[We] were so exhausted. It was very difficult. She was completely off of her routine,” Vaillancourt said.

Advocates for children with special needs have pressured the government to vaccinate parents, educators and caregivers faster.

They currently rank ninth on the Quebec government’s vaccination priority list, after people aged 60 and up.

Staff at Giant Steps also say they would love to be included in the pilot project.

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“We feel we are on the front here and our kids too, and a lot of people here can be at risk,” said attendant Emmanuel Gagne.

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