AODA Alliance calls on the Ontario Government to Appoint an Associate Deputy Minister of Education, to Create and Implement a Provincial Plan to ensure that A Third of a Million Students with Disabilities Are Fully and Safely Included in School Re-Opening

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update

United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities

Web: www.aodaalliance.org Email: aodafeedback@gmail.com Twitter: @aodaalliance Facebook: www.facebook.com/aodaalliance/

AODA Alliance calls on the Ontario Government to Appoint an Associate Deputy Minister of Education, to Create and Implement a Provincial Plan to ensure that A Third of a Million Students with Disabilities Are Fully and Safely Included in School Re-Opening

September 23, 2020

            SUMMARY

Today the AODA Alliance wrote Ontario’s Minister of Education Stephen Lecce. We called on the Ford Government to immediately appoint an Associate Deputy Minister of Education with specialized expertise in educating students with disabilities. That official should be immediately assigned to oversee the development and implementation of a desperately-needed and currently missing provincial plan to ensure that students with disabilities in Ontario, numbering at least 340,000, are fully and safely included in school re-opening. The AODA Alliance and others have been pressing for this much-needed plan for months. The letter to the Minister of Education is set out below.

For more background on these issues, visit

  1. The AODA Alliance’s COVID-19 web page and our education accessibility web page.
  1. The July 24, 2020 report on meeting the needs of students with disabilities during school re-opening by the COVID-19 subcommittee of the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee.
  1. The AODA Alliance‘s July 23, 2020 report on the need to rein in the power of school principals to refuse to admit a student to school.
  1. The AODA Alliance’s June 18, 2020 brief to the Ford Government on how to meet the needs of students with disabilities during school re-opening.
  1. The widely viewed online video of the May 4, 2020 virtual Town Hall on meeting the needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis, co-organized by the Ontario Autism Coalition and the AODA Alliance.

          MORE DETAILS

ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE

aodafeedback@gmail.com www.aodalliance.org Twitter: @aodaalliance

September 23, 2020

Via Email

To: The Hon Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education

minister.edu@ontario.ca

Dear Minister,

Re: Meeting the Needs of One Third of a Million Ontario Students with Disabilities During the Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic

We write to voice very serious concerns about your Government’s failure to effectively meet the urgent needs of a third of a million Ontario K-12 students with disabilities since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. I urgently request a chance to virtually meet with you as soon as possible to speak about this. On July 8, 2020, you spoke positively in the Legislature about our previous discussions on this topic. Since then, we have not spoken in over two months.

We are deeply concerned that your Government has not put in place a comprehensive plan to ensure that students with disabilities are fully and safely included in Ontario schools as they now re-open. Your Government is largely leaving it to each of 72 school boards to figure out what to do to include them. School boards are each having to re-invent the same wheel. Even worse, they must do so when scrambling in the midst of their unprecedented challenge to get schools re-opened for in-person and virtual attendance.

Students with disabilities and their families need and deserve better from their provincial government. In report after report in the media over the past weeks, the stresses and hardships facing students with disabilities and their parents in Ontario have been brought to public attention, as well as the pressing need for a strong and comprehensive provincial plan of action for them.

This is a troubling repetition of The Government’s failure to come forward with an effective plan last spring to ensure that students with disabilities were fully included in and could fully benefit from distance learning during the months of school closures. Last winter, your Government was understandably taken by surprise by the COVID-19 pandemic. We recognized throughout that it would take time to get distance learning up and running in the spring.

However, despite repeated requests from us and others, over the ensuing three and a half months of school closure last spring, your Government did not adopt a comprehensive plan to ensure that students with disabilities could fully participate in and fully benefit from distance learning. Instead, your Government largely left it to each school board to try to figure out how to do this. That unfairly inflicted very troubling consequences on students with disabilities as well as on their families and teachers.

Your Government was not caught by surprise by the need to plan for the full and safe inclusion of students with disabilities in this fall’s school re-opening. Last spring’s experience amply showed that there would be a pressing need to ensure that you had a comprehensive plan in place for this. This plan needed to address both the needs of students with disabilities who attend school in person, and those who opt to take part in distance learning.

Over the spring and summer, you and your Government were repeatedly alerted to the need to design and implement a comprehensive plan to ensure that students with disabilities were safely and fully included in school re-openings. We told you this in our June 18, 2020 brief on school re-openings, a brief that was endorsed by other reputable organizations. You were given the same advice in the comprehensive recommendations to your Government that you received some two months ago from the Government-appointed K-12 Education Standards Development Committee’s Emergencies and COVID-19 subcommittee.

Your Government’s repeated public response to these concerns has been to point to the fact that your Government had allocated $10 million for students with disabilities this summer, later supplemented by an additional $12 million from federal funds (the latter to be used for students with special education needs as well as for student mental health that could apply to all two million Ontario students). This repeated Government response doubly illustrates the painful plight that students with disabilities in Ontario now face.

First, The Government’s response does not dispute that it has no comprehensive provincial plan for students with disabilities. Second, those sums, even if fully spent only on students with disabilities, would amount to at most a meager $70 per student. With no provincial plan on how to spend this money, the Ontario Government does not ensure that it is wisely spent. Rather, each school board is unfairly left to shoulder the cost of duplicating the efforts of all other school boards, each wastefully trying to figure out what to do to meet the same disability-related needs across the province.

The current stressful predicament facing students with disabilities and their families is made worse by your Ministry’s long term, systemic deficiencies in addressing the needs of students with disabilities. Here are but a few examples:

  1. On July 23, 2020, we made public a detailed report, showing that across Ontario, students with disabilities face an unfair situation where a school principal can refuse to admit them or others to school, claiming their presence could be detrimental to other students. This is a practice for which local school board policies arbitrarily vary wildly across Ontario.

This report showed a pressing need for your Government to immediately issue detailed policy directions to school boards to reign in this unfairness, and to ensure that students with disabilities are not the victims of a rash of exclusions from school this fall. Yet in the ensuing two months, your Government has still not taken this much-needed, long-overdue action.

We sent your office an advance copy of that report on July 9, 2020, two weeks before it was made public. We then sent it to senior officials at your Ministry on July 23, 2020. In the period of over two months since then, no public servant in the Ministry has reached out to us to discuss our report, or to seek from us any further information (such as the 33 different policies on point from boards around Ontario) that underlies its detailed findings.

  1. Your Ministry announced this summer that it will spend at least half a billion dollars on new schools and major school renovations. Yet it has announced no effective action to ensure that those schools will be designed to be accessible to students, parents and staff with disabilities. Your Ministry’s capital grants officials do not now ensure that the billions that they give to school boards are never used to create or perpetuate barriers against people with disabilities. They leave it to each school board to deal with this. They require no accessibility features in schools beyond the palpably inadequate built environment accessibility requirements in the Ontario Building Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act’s standards enacted to date.
  1. Your Ministry collects a great deal of data and statistics from school boards. Yet its data collection is substantially deficient when it comes to students with disabilities and to the specialized school board staff that each school employs to meet their needs. As such, your Ministry chronically lacks key information that could be readily available to you, and that is essential for effective planning and oversight for students with disabilities. As but one example, your Ministry does not collect data from each school board on how many students it refuses to admit to school, or why, or for how long, or how many have disabilities.
  1. This past spring, we alerted you and your Government to the fact that your Ministry’s online resources to assist school boards and families with distance learning had accessibility problems that create barriers for students, parents and staff with a range of different disabilities. As well, we alerted you to the fact that TV Ontario’s online distance learning resources have disability accessibility problems. Your Government has repeatedly identified TV Ontario as its major partner for delivering distance learning. TV Ontario is owned and operated by the Ontario Government.

When we raised this, it appears that both The Government and TV Ontario were oblivious to those barriers. Since we raised this, your Government and TV Ontario have to our knowledge announced no plan of action to address these accessibility barriers. Yet months after we raised this with your Ministry, distance learning continues for many students and may have to resume for all students if a second COVID-19 wave requires schools to close again.

Your Ministry’s response to us has been nothing more than a strategy to manage a stakeholder, rather than a strategy to solve the problem that we identified. Last spring, your Ministry arranged a demonstration of the online learning platform, BrightSpace, which the Ministry makes available to school boards to use if they wish, along with its Bongo virtual classroom platform. In this demonstration, we identified some accessibility issues. We also learned that the Government has no idea how many school boards even use BrightSpace or Bongo.

  1. Your Ministry commendably has a public commitment to Equity and an Education Equity Secretariat. However, its efforts on equity have not fully included equity and inclusion for students with disabilities. Indeed, as we understand it, within the Ministry, “equity” has been treated as referring principally to equity for such equality-seeking groups as racialized communities and Indigenous Peoples. Of course, equity for those communities is essential and requires strong action. However, equity for students with disabilities, numbering as many as one out of every six students in Ontario-funded schools, merits full and equal attention, focus and effort.

We ask your Government to now take these concrete actions:

  1. Please now appoint a new position of Associate Deputy Minister of Education for Inclusion of Students with Disabilities. This official should have substantial experience with education of K-12 students with disabilities in the school system. They should be assigned a team of staff with that kind of experience.
  1. The new Associate Deputy Minister and their team should be assigned responsibility for immediately developing, implementing and overseeing a comprehensive plan to ensure that students with disabilities are fully and safely included in school re-opening and in distance learning. The July 24, 2020 package of recommendations from the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee’s Emergencies subcommittee is an excellent starting point for that plan of action.

We are eager to assist your Government. Students with disabilities and their families need action now.

Sincerely,

David Lepofsky CM, O. Ont

Chair Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance

CC: Premier Doug Ford premier@ontario.ca

Raymond Cho, Minister of Seniors and Accessibility Raymond.cho@ontario.ca

Nancy Naylor, Deputy Minister of Education nancy.naylor@ontario.ca

Jeff Butler, Acting Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Support and Field Services Division Jeff.Butler@ontario.ca

Yael Ginsler, Assistant Deputy Minister of Education (Acting) for the Student Achievement Division yael.ginsler@ontario.ca

Denise Cole, Deputy Minister for Seniors and Accessibility Denise.Cole@ontario.ca

Mary Bartolomucci, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Accessibility Directorate, Mary.Bartolomucci@ontario.ca