In a video circulating online, blind and low-vision students of W. Ross Macdonald School in Brantford, Ontario urged the provincial government to reopen lodging so they can return to in-person learning.
“Everyone else is allowed to go back to school right now, I feel like it’s discriminatory,” said student Megan Myers.
“Being online means we don’t have equal access to education, and as people who are already a minority in society this is a major setback,” said student Jade Ondrick.
In an interview with Global News, 18-year-old Ondrick said she is losing out on important life skills because the school’s lodging program has been shut down.
“Being able to be in the lodging program means that I get to help with cooking on Thursday nights and I get to learn proper cutting techniques and all that kind of independent skills that people who are abled and who are fully visual take for granted,” she said.
W. Ross Macdonald School is one of a handful of Provincial and Demonstration Schools in Ontario that have closed their residences.
“The recommendation was that if we can’t achieve isolation with an immediate timeframe if a child is symptomatic to go home it could have an impact and potential risk for these kids and so we made the difficult decision on the strict advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health to have a temporary pivot to virtual, but I know these kids have to get back to class,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce told Global News.
If students can get to the Brantford school every day, they can attend in person, but most live far away so they are at home learning virtually.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re visually impaired, low vision, partially sighted, blind, deaf-blind doesn’t matter, we learn in a hands-on environment,” said student Mehak Aziz from her home in Toronto. “Through an online environment we cannot get that same experience.”
“Students like myself rely on it for everything when it comes to life skills, socializing, even improving our academics because of our wonderful lodging staff who are able to help us at night time with our work and they encourage us to do so much,” said student Alex Marlet from his home in Oakville.
Deaf Toronto teacher Tamara Witcher began a petition asking that student lodgings at provincial schools be reopened.
“Our residences are closed indefinitely, despite zero outbreaks and low student enrolment, the Provincial Schools Branch has made no commitment to opening them again, and they should have found a way to keep in-person learning going,” notes the petition.
Witcher told Global News there was “no consultation with any stakeholders” before the lodging was shut down and there has been “no data to support closing.”
“It is vital that our students can come to school to learn in person. Some of the skills and education they really need cannot be learned or taught online. Our students are vulnerable and need this for their mental health. This is the first time that our students are not allowed to learn in person, while the rest of Ontario’s schools are allowed to open,” she said.
“For our students, many of them experience isolation and lack of communication at their homes. Most of their families cannot communicate with their children. Their access to education online is extremely limited and impacted by all of that,” added Witcher.
David Sykes, district officer of Provincial Schools Authority Teachers (PSAT), said COVID-19 was initially cited as the cause of the lodging closure, but pointed out there have been no COVID-19 outbreaks within the Provincial and Demonstration Schools Branch (PDSB.)
“The unions, OSSTF and OPSEU, have both made it known that this is not justifiable, both in terms of the COVID numbers and the health and safety measures that we have in place, and it’s not justifiable in terms of the impact it has on student learning,” he said.
Sykes said he is at a loss as to how to justify the situation, “other than perhaps it’s in the ministry’s best interest and there’s perhaps a big disconnect between what the provincial schools thinks is important and what the teachers and those who are on the frontline think.”
Lecce said the government is “fully committed to getting them back to school.”
“There is nothing more important that providing in-class learning for kids with exceptionalities, having said that we are determined to make sure they are safe, and until the Chief Medical Officer of Health gives us the go-ahead we will continue with the current position recognizing that they need to get back,” said Lecce.
Disability rights advocate David Lepofsky, who is also chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, said this is further proof that blind and low vision students are “second class citizens in Ontario’s education system.”
“It’s because of a systemic, decades-long failure by the provincial government and the Ministry of Education to provide the kind of leadership and oversight that they provide for other students around the province,” added Lepofsky.
For students, like Aziz, now 17 years old, losing lodging is setting back future plans.
“It’s a bit of a problem now because I need independent living skills in order to go to post-secondary because obviously you’ve got to move out someday,” she said, adding “Now since lodging is closed I’m not able to get those skills I need in order to be functional when I go to post-secondary.”