At the start of April, Nova Scotia had been doing well, keeping COVID-19 cases low. The premier had announced that schools could host some form of graduation, but by the end of the month, the situation had changed quickly with COVID-19 cases spiking.
On April 27, the premier announced a provincewide shutdown, which included closing all schools.
“So there was no preparation or transition, it was just one day you’re in school, the next day you’re not,” said Cynthia Carroll, executive director of Autism Nova Scotia.
“When you’re looking at students with disabilities and students on the spectrum there are definitely considerations, so that transition from school to home can be very challenging.”
Kelly Eelhart knows all too well just how challenging the transition can be. Her son Owen is 17 years old. He’s a Grade 11 student attending Charles P. Allen in Bedford and has autism.
“We were really disappointed we had to move back to at-home learning because we experienced it last year and it was just the writeoff of a semester,” said Eelhart.
Like many individuals living with autism, routine is very important to Owen, and when things differ from the regular routine, adapting doesn’t always happen.
“It’s really hard to get him to do anything at all because he’s off his routine,” said Eelhart.
During a typical school year, Eelhart says her son does quite well in the classroom. While he has a dedicated educational program assistant (EPA) he spends the majority of his time in class, but with classes now online, he’s not attending.
“He does not participate on anything on Zoom. He won’t even Skype his grandparents,” said Eelhart.
“It’s just something he’s not comfortable with. I’ve chased him around with an iPad and a phone trying to get him to do something but he won’t.”
Carroll says the challenge isn’t unique to the Eelhart family and that’s why the organization is asking the province to allow some students to safely return to their school environments to continue to access education and specialized supports.
“From a mental health perspective, from a gains perspective, skill-building perspective there’s a lot to still, I think, be had in the rest of the school year,” said Caroll.
“We really want to make sure there’s equal opportunity for all students to have some opportunity for learning.”
The Department of Education has said it is currently finalizing plans to address the special needs of some students, but that likely won’t include a return to school.
A statement from the department says “it is expected to be an at-home program that takes place outdoors, which meets current Public Health restrictions.”
The statement also says eligible families will be contacted by the department for more information on how to register.
Eelhart says her family has not been contacted yet, and they would be willing to try any solution, but she says she would still prefer something that involved some sort of return to school — even if that meant an outdoor class.
“Where he could be learning as well as maintaining some routine, and being intellectually stimulated,” said Eelhart.
She says the biggest hurdle with potentially having someone come to their home is that their son associates school with school, and home with home, and doesn’t like to mix the two.
“He doesn’t even do homework at home,” said Eelhart.