Please Email the Ontario Government to Support the AODA Alliance’s Finalized Brief on Measures Needed to Meet the Needs of Students with Disabilities Now and During the Transition to Schools 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/

Please Email the Ontario Government to Support the AODA Alliance’s Finalized Brief on Measures Needed to Meet the Needs of Students with Disabilities Now and During the Transition to Schools Re-Opening

June 18, 2020

          SUMMARY

Working at warp speed, the AODA Alliance has finalized and submitted its brief to the Ontario Government on what must be done to meet the needs of at least one third of a million students with disabilities in kindergarten to Grade 12 now and during the eventual transition to schools re-opening. We set out that 23-page brief below.

We invite and encourage you to email the Ontario Government right away to support our brief’s 19 recommendations. Those recommendations are set out and described throughout the brief. To make it easier for you, at the end of the brief is an appendix that lists all the recommendations together in one place.

You can support us by emailing the Government at this address: EDU.consultation@ontario.ca If you are part of a disability community organization, please get your organization to write the Government to support our recommendations. Of course, we encourage you to add any thoughts, experiences or recommendations that you wish.

It is good if you can use your own words when you write the Government. If you don’t have time, you might just wish to say something like this:

“I support the recommendations made in the AODA Alliance’s June 18, 2020 brief to the Ontario Government on what needs to be done to meet the needs of students with disabilities now and during the transition to re-opened schools.”

We thank everyone who took the time to read over the draft of this brief that we circulated for comment on June 11, 2020. We got fantastic feedback. We drew heavily on that feedback as we finalized this brief.

This finalized brief makes all the 17 recommendations that were in our draft brief (with some minor improvements) with one exception. Based on feedback we received, we removed our draft recommendation 13(b) in the draft brief. It had recommended that schools re-open for vulnerable students first. Our finalized brief replaced that recommendation with this, in #13(b):

“The COVID-19 IEP of each student with disabilities should tailor their plans for the return to school to meet their individual needs. Students with disabilities who need this accommodation should be afforded a chance to return to the school facility early so they can be oriented to any changes to which they need to adjust in the COVID-19 era.”

This finalized brief adds two new recommendations, 18 and 19. These propose that the Government and school boards across the board make more use during the COVID-19 pandemic of the Special Education Advisory Committee that each Ontario school board is required to have, if they are not doing so now.

In addition to writing the Government to support our recommendations, we encourage you to send this brief to your local school board and school trustees. Encourage them to take the actions we recommend in this brief.

For more background on these issues, please visit the AODA Alliances COVID-19 web page and our education web page.

Stay safe, and let us know what you do to help us press for these reforms. Email us at aodafeedback@gmail.com

          MORE DETAILS

A Brief to the Ontario Government on Key Measures Needed to Address the Learning Needs of Students with Disabilities in Ontario During the COVID-19 Crisis Both During Distance Learning and During The Transition to the Eventual Re-Opening of Schools

Submitted by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance

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

To: The Hon. Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education

Via email EDU.consultation@ontario.ca

June 18, 2020

 Introduction

The AODA Alliance submits this brief to the Minister of Education for Ontario, in response to the Ministry of Education’s public consultation on the transition to school re-opening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The AODA Alliance is a voluntary non-partisan grassroots coalition of individuals and organizations. Our mission is:

“To contribute to the achievement of a barrier-free Ontario for all persons with disabilities, by promoting and supporting the timely, effective, and comprehensive implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.”

To learn about us, visit: https://www.aodaalliance.org.

Our coalition is the successor to the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee. The ODA Committee advocated more than ten years for the enactment of strong, effective disability accessibility legislation. Our coalition builds on the ODA Committee’s work. We draw our membership from the ODA Committee’s broad, grassroots base. To learn about the ODA Committee’s history, visit: http://www.odacommittee.net.

We have been widely recognized by the Ontario Government, by all political parties in the Ontario Legislature, within the disability community and by the media, as a key voice leading the non-partisan campaign for accessibility in Ontario. In every provincial election since 2005, parties that made election commitments on accessibility did so in letters to the AODA Alliance.

Among our many activities, we led a multi-year campaign to get the Ontario Government to agree to develop an Education Accessibility Standard under the AODA to tear down the many barriers that impede students with disabilities in Ontario’s education system. Our years of efforts to advocate for accessibility for students with disabilities are documented on our website’s education page.

Our efforts and expertise on accessibility for people with disabilities have been recognized in MPPs’ speeches in the Ontario Legislature, and beyond. Our website and Twitter feed are widely consulted as helpful sources of information on accessibility efforts in Ontario and elsewhere. We have achieved this as an unfunded volunteer community coalition.

The Government must pay special heed to the input it receives from the disability community including parents of students with disabilities . Input to the Government from other organizations can fail to effectively address the specific experience and needs of students with disabilities . The recommendations in this brief are gathered together in a list in the appendix appearing at the end of this brief. Our position in this brief is summarized as follows:

  1. a) The COVID-19 crisis has imposed disproportionate added hardships on people with disabilities. As part of this, it has led to disproportionate, serious hardships being inflicted on students with disabilities in Ontario schools. These hardships are exacerbated by no small part by serious pre-existing problems and disability barriers that have faced students with disabilities for years in Ontario’s education system, which have been made even worse for too many students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  1. b) In this brief we address the needs of all students with disabilities, using the inclusive definition of “disability” in the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act . We do not limit our recommendations to the narrower group of students whose disability falls in the narrower definitions of “special education “ or “exceptionality” that the Ministry of Education uses.
  1. c) To date, the provincial response to the problems facing students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic has been substantially insufficient. The AODA Alliance offers 19 recommendations in this brief, to effectively address this, starting now and into the fall. Our fuller recommendations for comprehensive and long term reforms in the form of a strong and effective Education Accessibility Standard are set out in the AODA Alliance’s October 10, 20-19 Framework for the promised Education Accessibility Standard.
  1. d) While students are not able to go to school this spring due to the COVID-19 crisis, students with disabilities are experiencing wildly different learning experiences. Some are making good progress. Some are making much less progress. Some are making no progress or are losing ground. Some are getting extensive educational supports from their school board. Some are getting much less support. Some are getting little if any support. Conditions and supports can vary widely, even within the same school board and by students with the same disability.
  1. e) There is a pressing need for a comprehensive Ministry of Education plan of action to address the needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis.
  1. f) There is a need for a provincial “Students with Disabilities Command Table” at the Ministry of Education.
  1. g) The Ministry must prevent a rash of principals refusing to admit some students with disabilities to school when schools re-open.
  1. h) There is a need for specific COVID-19 Individual Education Plans for individual students with disabilities before and during the transition to return to school.
  1. i) There is a need for Provincial and School Board Rapid Response Teams to be established to address recurring urgent needs of students with disabilities.
  1. j) A surge of specialized supports for students with disabilities is needed when schools re-open.
  1. k) School boards must plan for the needs of students with disabilities who cannot themselves ensure social distancing.
  1. l) The Ministry must ensure the full accessibility of digital platforms used for remote classes or “synchronous learning”.
  1. m) The Ontario Government must immediately ensure the digital accessibility of Ontario Government and TVO online learning resources.
  1. n) The Ministry of Education and school boards must stop making some learning resources available only in PDF format as this creates accessibility barriers.
  1. o) One size fits all does not fit for return to school.
  1. p) There is a need for a rapid method to spread the word to teachers and parents about effective teaching strategies for students with disabilities during COVID-19.
  1. q) Distance learning must be effectively provided for students who cannot return to school right away when schools re-open.
  1. r) The Ministry of Education should now create provincial resources for parents to prepare their students for the return to school.
  1. s) New protocols are needed for safe school bussing for students with disabilities.
  1. t) The Ministry should ensure the very active engagement of each school board’s Special Education Advisory Committee.

This brief builds on extensive involvement of the AODA Alliance during the COVID-19 crisis, advocating for the needs of people with disabilities across society. On June 11, 2020, we made public a draft of this brief, and solicited public input on it. We were very gratified by the supportive and helpful feedback we received. We have drawn heavily on that feedback to produce this finalized brief. We are urging one and all to share their own advice and recommendations with the Ontario Government during this important consultation.

 1. Pressing Need for A Comprehensive Ministry of Education Plan of Action to Address Needs of Students with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Crisis

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the AODA Alliance has repeatedly urged the Ontario Government to develop and announce a comprehensive plan to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis. This has been needed so over 70 school boards don’t have to each re-invent the wheel in deciding what the needs of students with disabilities are and how best to meet them. To date, the Ontario Government has not done what we have urged.

The need for this comprehensive provincial plan remains pressing during the period of distance learning due to school closures. It is also needed to ensure that students with disabilities’ needs are met across Ontario when schools eventually re-open. Ontario needs to also be prepared in the event of the realistic possibility that distance learning will have to continue in the fall, either because school re-opening is further delayed, or because a second wave of COVID-19 would require another round of school closures.

To date, the Ontario Government has primarily focused its education strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic on students without disabilities. Almost as an afterthought, it then reminded school boards that they should also accommodate students with special education needs.

The plan for students with disabilities should, to the extent possible, be included in the Ministry’s overall plan for school re-opening.

We therefore recommend that:

#1. The Ministry of Education should immediately develop, announce and implement a comprehensive plan for meeting the learning needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis. This plan should include during this time of distance learning, during an eventual return to school, and in case of a future COVID-19 wave that requires another round of school closures. To the extent possible, this plan should be an integral part of the Ministry’s overall plan it is developing for school re-opening.

 2. Need for a Provincial “Students with Disabilities Command Table”

To deal with the need for rapid planning during the COVID-19 crisis, the Ontario Government has commendably set up its own “command tables” to deal with critical areas, like health care planning and planning for the safe operation of the economy during this crisis. This enables the Government to have critical expertise at the table to make rapid and key decisions.

There is a pressing need for a “students with disabilities command table” within the Government to plan for the learning needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. No such table or concentrated expertise centre exists now within Ontario’s Ministry of Education. We have been pressing for this for three months. That table needs to be staffed by professionals with focused expertise on providing education to students with disabilities.

This is not meant to be an advisory or consultative table. It needs to be a planning and implementation table that can quickly and nimbly make decisions and effectively connect with the frontlines in the education system, where the action is.

This need is not fulfilled by the Minister of Education having had some consultative meetings with the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Special Education (MACSE), which still has vacancies, or with the AODA K-12 Education Standards Development Committee. Those bodies are only advisory. They do not have the capacity of a Ministry command table. Of course, it is good that they have been consulted.

We therefore recommend that:

#2. The Ministry of Education should immediately establish a “Students with Disabilities Education Command Table” to oversee the development and implementation of a Government action plan for meeting the urgent learning needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis, and to swiftly react to issues for students with disabilities as they arise.

 3. Preventing a Rash of Refusals to Admit Students with Disabilities to School When Schools Re-Open

Ontario’s Education Act lets a school principal refuse to admit to school any “person whose presence in the school or classroom would in the principal’s judgment be detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of the pupils…”. Disability advocates have repeatedly criticized this as an excessive, arbitrary and unfair power. The Education Act and the Ministry of Education leave to school boards and individual principals an extremely wide discretion over when, how and why to exclude a student from school under this power. The Education Act does not even require principals to give a parent their reasons for excluding a student from school. It does not cap the duration of the student’s exclusion from school. It does not require a school board or the Ministry to keep track of how often or why students are excluded from school under this power.

Disproportionately, this excessive power has been used against students with disabilities, leading them too often to be excluded from school altogether or allowing them to attend school only for reduced hours. Long before the COVID-19 crisis, parents’ and students’ advocates have called for this power to be reduced and regulated. See for example the January 30, 2019 joint news release by the AODA Alliance and the Ontario Autism Coalition. To date, the Ontario Government has not made any significant reform of this power.

In September 2018, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released an updated policy on accessible education for students with disabilities. Its recommendations to the Ontario Government included, among other things:

“9. Identify and end the practice of exclusion wherein principals ask parents to keep primary and secondary students with disabilities home from school for part or all of the school day (and the role that an improper use of section 265(1)(m) of the Education Act may be playing in this practice).”

There is a serious risk that some principals will feel at liberty to use this power to exclude some students with disabilities from school during school re-openings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially before any effective vaccine is invented and widely available. This is especially so if school boards do not now effectively plan for the inclusion and accommodation of students with disabilities at school during the transition to school re-opening. They may do so either because they don’t know how to accommodate some students with disabilities during social distancing, or because the Ontario Government and/or their school board has not given them the staffing, directions and resources they need to be able to effectively include and accommodate those students at school for part or all of the school day. Such exclusions from school raise serious human rights concerns and are contrary to the student’s right to an education.

With all the uncertainties and pressures anticipated during the transition back to school, a principal can be expected to feel a real temptation to use the power to refuse to admit such students to school during a COVID-19 school re-opening. This is so because it would seem to solve the problem of having to plan for those students’ needs at school.

The need to reform practices regarding a school principal’s power to refuse to admit a student to school for part or all of the school day has therefore become even more pressing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AODA Alliance considers this a major priority. It is essential that school re-openings this fall do not lead to a rash of principals’ refusals to admit any number of students with disabilities to school. Such a rash of exclusions would thereby create two classes of students, those allowed to return to school and those who are excluded from school, especially if this disproportionately divides along disability lines.

The Ontario Government has commendably been willing to give directions to a school board about the use of its power to refuse to admit students to school in other contexts. It can and should do so here as well. The Ontario Ministry of Education has very recently given directions to the Peel District School Board to keep and report data on exclusions of students from school by race. In directive number 9, the Ministry stipulated that:

“The Board shall centrally track disaggregated race-based data on suspensions (in-school and out-of-school), expulsions and exclusions, and report publicly through the Annual Equity Accountability Report Card.”

We therefore recommend that:

#3. The Ministry of Education should immediately issue a policy direction to all school boards, imposing restrictions on when and how a principal may exclude a student from school, including directions that:

  1. a) During the re-opening at schools, students with disabilities have an equal right to attend schools for the entire school day as do students without disabilities. The power to refuse to admit a student to school for all or part of the school day should not be used in a way that disproportionately burdens students with disabilities or that creates a barrier to their right to attend school.
  1. b) A principal who refuses to admit a student to school during the school re-opening process should be required to immediately give the student and their family written notice of their decision to do so, including written reasons for the refusal to admit, the duration of the refusal to admit and notice of the family’s right to appeal this refusal to admit to the school board.
  1. c) A principal who refuses to admit a student to school for all or part of the school day should be required to immediately report this in writing to their school board’s senior management, including the reasons for the exclusion, its duration and whether the student has a disability. Each school board should be required to compile this information and to report it on a bi-monthly basis to the board of trustees, the public and the Ministry of Education (with individual information totally anonymized). The Ministry should promptly make public on a provincial basis and a school board by school board basis the information it receives on numbers, reasons and durations of refusals to admit during post- COVID-19 school re-opening.

 4. Need for Specific COVID-19 Individual Education Plans for Individual Students with Disabilities Before and During Transition to Return to School

For each student with disabilities, distance learning during COVID-19 will have created different deficits and challenges. The transition back to school will present challenges and needs that will vary from student to student.

Students’ IEPs were all written earlier this past school year while students were in school. They were written with no contemplation of the COVID-19 crisis or the challenges and hardships of distance learning and then of a later transition back to school. All students with disabilities will need their IEP modified to address these unforeseen needs.

As an immediate measure, students with disabilities each now need a customized COVID-19 –specific IEP to be created and implemented. This should not be limited to students whose disability fits within the narrow and incomplete definition of “exceptionality” in Ontario, which leaves out some disabilities. It should be provided to any student that has a disability within the meaning of the Ontario Human Rights Code. It should not be limited to students whose disability has been formally “identified” at an Identification and Placement Review Committee.

This COVID-19 IEP would not replace the student’s existing IEP. It would not replace the usual IEP development process when school is back in usual operation. This COVID-19 IEP is meant as an immediate, temporary or interim measure to address these hitherto-unanticipated events and related learning needs. IEPs are supported to deal, among other things, with transition needs. Both the transition to distance learning and the later transition to school re-opening fit well within that rubric.

The COVID-19 IEP should be developed now and over the summer, not in the fall when students are already back in school. This may well require new resources to enable this to be developed over the summer.

As noted earlier, there is a real possibility that distance learning will continue in September, or may have to later resume due to a resurgence or a second wave of COVID-19. These COVID-19 IEPs need to now anticipate and effectively address each of these possible eventualities.

The development of each student’s COVID-19 IEP should start with a direct phone conversation as soon as possible between the student’s teacher and the family. They should discuss where the gains and gaps have been, the concerns for the fall that are anticipated and how best to address them. The COVID-19 IEP should be developed in close consultation with the family and, where appropriate, the student.

We therefore recommend that:

#4. For each student with disabilities, each school board should now:

  1. a) Contact the family of each student with disabilities, preferably by phone rather than email, to discuss and identify the student’s progress during the school shutdown, the student’s specific and individualized disability-related deficits and needs arising from and during distance learning due to the COVID-19 crisis and the student’s needs and challenges related to eventual transition to school (including any vulnerabilities of other family members due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and;
  1. b) Create a COVID-19 IEP to set specific goals and activities to effectively address their disability-related needs during distance learning, and in connection with transition back to school.

 5. Need for Provincial and School Board Rapid Response Teams to Be Established to Address Recurring Urgent Needs of Students with Disabilities

During the COVID-19 crisis, Ontario’s education system continues to try to navigate uncharted territory. No matter how much planning for the needs of students with disabilities takes place as we here recommend, unexpected surprises will crop up. School boards and the Ministry of Education each need to be able to quickly detect these, and to nimbly respond to them. Traditionally, large organizations are not always the best at rapid and nimble adaptations in the midst of great uncertainty.

Parents, teachers and principals need a central point in the school board to report difficult challenges. Each school board needs to quickly feed this information to a single point at the Ministry that is staying on top of things, for rapid responses to recurring issues around the province.

We therefore recommend that:

#5. The Ministry of Education should assign staff to assist its Students with Disabilities Command Table by serving as a central rapid response team to receive feedback from school boards on recurring issues facing students with disabilities and to help find solutions to share with school boards.

#6. The Ministry should direct that each school board shall establish a similar central rapid response team within the board to receive and act on feedback from teachers, principals and families about problems they are encountering serving students with disabilities during the COVID-19 period, that will quickly network with other similar offices at other school boards, and that can report recurring issues to the Ministry.

 6. Surge Needed in Specialized Supports for Students with Disabilities

All students will have fallen behind to varying extents during the months when schools were closed. This hardship falls especially on students with disabilities who have additional specialized curriculum to learn, related to their disabilities, or who need specialized supports to learn which are unavailable during distance learning.

When students return to school, students with disabilities who need those supports will need a surge in the hours of support provided to them to help them catch up and adjust to the return to school. School boards cannot simply pull those resources out of the air. School boards will need added funding to hire those staff. They will need provincial help in finding them where there are shortages.

For example, students with vision loss are unable to get the full benefit of teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) teaching hands-on braille reading when schools are closed. When schools re-open, school boards will need to engage additional TVIs to help ramp up the surge in TVI hours to be provided to students. There is now a shortage of TVIs in Ontario. The Ministry will need to lead a concerted effort to create a surge of TVIs to help school boards fill this gap during the return to school. Comparable needs can similarly be identified for students with other disabilities where such specialized educational support is needed.

We therefore recommend that:

#7. The Ministry of Education should plan for, fund and coordinate the provision by school boards of a surge in specialized disability supports to those students with disabilities who will need them when students return to school.

 7. Planning for Needs of Students with Disabilities Who Cannot Themselves Ensure Social Distancing

As an illustration of the last issue discussed, any return to school while COVID-19 continues to exist in our community will require students to engage in social distancing. If schools re-open, they will be doing so mindful of the fact that many students will not be able to consistently and reliably engage in social distancing, frequent hand washing and other important protective activities. Many are too young to ensure that they can fully understand the need to do so and comply. For some older children, it may seem cool to periodically break the rules. For many, it will be impossible to remain attentive to these precautions all the time.

For any number of students with disabilities, social distancing and related safe practices may pose additional challenges. For some, wearing a mask may not be possible due to such things as sensory integration or behavioural issues.

Some students with disabilities require an education assistant (EA) or special needs assistant (SNA) for all or part of the day to fully take part in school activities. For some of these students, it will not be possible to remain two meters away while providing the support or assistance that the student needs. Some will require close assistance for eating, hand-washing and other personal needs.

Pre-COVID-19 staffing levels for EAs and SNAs were too often inadequate. They did not account for these important additional requirements. EAs and SNAs were not experienced with or trained for this before COVID-19. It is not sufficient to now send them an email with instructions, or a link to a training video, and thereafter to assume that they will be fully equipped to consistently and reliably handle these duties. In addition to new in-person training, they will need to have constant access to good quality personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks.

It is also important to employ enough EAs and SNAs so that they don’t have to split their time among multiple schools or venues, lest they pose a greater risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus from place to place among vulnerable students.

We therefore recommend that:

#8. The Ministry of Education’s plan for school re-openings must include detailed directions on required measures for ensuring that students with disabilities are safe from COVID-19 during any return to school. This requires additional planning in advance by school boards and additional funding to school boards to hire and train the additional SNAs and EAs they will need to ensure the safety of students with disabilities. It also requires safeguards to ensure that an EA or SNA does not work at multiple sites and risk transmitting the COVID-19 virus from one location to another.

 8. Ensuring Full Accessibility of Digital Platforms Used for Remote Classes or “Synchronous Learning”

We do not here wade into the dispute between the Ford Government and some teachers’ unions about whether or when a teacher should conduct online classes for their students in real time over the internet, sometimes called “synchronous learning”. We insist, however, that whenever an online real time class or synchronous learning takes place, or any other online meeting involving students with disabilities or their parents in connection with their education, it must be conducted via a fully accessible digital meeting platform.

When the Ontario Government moved our education system from the physical classroom to the virtual classroom in late March, it should have ensured from the start that the choice of digital meeting platforms was fully accessible. The Ontario Government did not do so, nor did it monitor school boards to see what platforms they were using. The Ontario Government dropped the ball on this critical accessibility concern, to the detriment of students, teachers and parents with disabilities. The Ministry of Education took the erroneous position that it was up to each school board to decide which online virtual meeting platform to use, based on the board’s assessment of its local needs. Yet these disability accessibility needs do not vary from school board to school board. They are the same across Ontario. The Ministry wastefully leaves it to each school board to investigate the relative accessibility of different virtual meeting platforms.

As a belated partial attempt to address this problem, the Minister of Education wrote school boards on or around May 26, 2020 about several issues regarding distance learning. That memo stated, among other things:

“Boards must ensure that the platforms they use for connecting with students and families are fully accessible for persons with disabilities.”

However, that direction provides no assistance to school boards on which platforms to use or avoid, or how to figure this out. It still leaves it to each school board to investigate this as much or as little as they wish, and then to duplicate the same investigations of this issue over and over across Ontario. We have seen no indication that the Minister’s direction led any school boards to change what they were doing in this regard.

This issue remains a live one and will continue into the fall. It is not clear when schools will re-open. Our education system may still be running on 100% distance learning at the start of the fall school term. Even when schools re-open, there is a real likelihood that some distance learning will continue in some blended model of in-school and distance education. As noted earlier, if a second wave of COVID-19 hits, as has happened elsewhere, requiring another round of school closures, Ontario will have to return to 100% distance learning.

At least one school board has improperly prohibited the use of Zoom, even though it is at least as accessible as, or more accessible than, other platforms. The Ministry of the Attorney General did its own comparison of digital meeting platforms, for use by the courts. The Superior Court of Justice of Ontario has decided to use Zoom as its platform for virtual court proceedings. If Zoom is safe enough for the Superior Court of Justice, there is no reason why a school board should prohibit its use.

Canada’s largest school board, TDSB, has announced that it is using Webex for parent-teacher meetings. This is so even though Webex has real accessibility problems. Such a practice should not be allowed.

We have heard examples of quite inaccurate information on this topic from some in the school board sector. Parents should not have to fight about this, one school board at a time, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

This topic requires ongoing effort and leadership by the Ministry. By August, there could well have been changes to the relative accessibility of different virtual meeting platforms. School boards need to operate based on current information.

We therefore recommend that:

#9. The Ministry of Education should immediately engage an arms-length digital accessibility consultant to evaluate the comparative accessibility of different digital meeting platforms available for use in Ontario schools. This should involve end-user testing. The Ministry should immediately send the resulting report and comparison to all school boards and make it public. This should be revisited as the fall approaches, in case there have been changes to the relative accessibility of different virtual meeting platforms. The Ministry should direct which platforms may be used and which may not be used for virtual or synchronous classes or parent/school meetings, based on their accessibility.

 9. Ensuring Digital Accessibility of Ontario Government and TVO Online Learning Resources

Over three months into the COVID-19 crisis, the Ontario Government has still not ensured that the online content that it provides to school boards, teachers, parents and students meets accessibility requirements for computer-users with disabilities. The AODA Alliance has been raising concerns with the Government about this since early in the pandemic. We have seen no public commitment to the needed corrective action. We have raised our concerns at senior levels within TVO and the Ministry of Education. The Government and TVO were required to comply with these accessibility requirements well before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We therefore recommend that:

#10. The Ministry of Education should immediately direct TVO to make its online learning content accessible to people with disabilities, and to promptly make public a plan of action to achieve this goal, with specific milestones and timelines.

#11. The Ministry of Education should make public a plan of action to swiftly make its own online learning content accessible for people with disabilities, setting out milestones and timelines, and should report to the public on its progress.

 10. Stop Making Some Learning Resources Available Only in PDF Format

Throughout this pandemic, as well as beforehand, the Ministry of Education and too many school boards have continued to make important digital information available to the public, including to parents, teachers and students, only in pdf format. That format can present accessibility problems for people with disabilities. When a document is made public in PDF format, it should also be made public in an accessible format, such as MS Word. This is an important time to start this long-overdue practice.

We therefore recommend that:

#12. The Ministry of Education should direct all its staff and all school boards that whenever making digital information public in a PDF format, it must at the same time also be made available in an accessible format such as an accessible MS Word document.

 11. One Size Fits All Does Not Fit for Return to School

To avoid chaos, a return to school should not be done all at once using a one-size-fits-all approach. Because we are in uncharted waters, it makes sense to go about this gradually and to try different approaches at different locations to see what works. We must avoid students with disabilities being again treated as after-thoughts who have to try to fit into a chaotic situation that was not designed with their needs in mind.

One suggestion that some have raised is to enable students with disabilities to return to school first, and for teaching staff to ensure their needs are met, before trying to also cope with an onslaught of all other students. Some have raised with us a concern that this might turn out to be a form of segregation, and could be detrimental for some of those students.

We therefore recommend that:

#13. The provincial plans for return to school should include these features:

  1. a) Rather than having all students across Ontario return to school at once, in a one-size-fits-all strategy, the Ontario Government should lead a strategic return to school process, trying out different approaches to see what works most effectively. For example, opening a few schools first to detect recurring problems and plan to prevent them would assist with opening of other schools across Ontario.
  1. b) The COVID-19 IEP of each student with disabilities should tailor their plans for the return to school to meet their individual needs. Students with disabilities who need this accommodation should be afforded a chance to return to the school facility early so they can be oriented to any changes to which they need to adjust in the COVID-19 era.

 12. Need for A Rapid Method to Spread the Word to Teachers and Parents About Effective Teaching Strategies for Students with Disabilities During COVID-19

Teachers and parents of students with disabilities are struggling around Ontario to cope with distance learning and the barriers it can create for many students with disabilities. Teachers and parents are creating novel work-arounds to address this.

Yet the Ontario Government has not been effectively canvassing the frontlines of teachers and parents to gather these up and share them around the province, so all can benefit without having to re-invent the wheel in the midst of a traumatic pandemic. We have called on the Ontario Government for the past three months to do this without success. We modelled one way of doing this by our successful May 4, 2020 online virtual town hall on teaching students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis (jointly organized with the Ontario Autism Coalition). As far as we have been able to learn, the Ontario Government has neither taken up that idea nor has it shared with school boards the link to our May 4, 2020 virtual town hall so that they can all benefit from it. We have repeatedly asked the Ministry of Education to share that link with school boards.

In the meantime, to fill this gap, several school boards have commendably been trying to address this need themselves. They have themselves been compiling good ideas and sharing them within their own board.

This is a huge and wasteful duplication of effort. The Ontario Government should be centrally accumulating and compiling all these resources, as well as researching what other jurisdictions have compiled from their own experience. These should be rapidly made available to frontline teachers and parents in a way that is easy to access, not by a blizzard of endless links that few if anyone will have the time to explore.

This effort should have been done weeks ago. Nevertheless, it is still not too late, since distance learning will remain part of our lives in whole or in part until a vaccine for COVID-19 is created and widely administered.

It is important that any such resources be themselves fully accessible to teacher, school staff, students and family members with disabilities. We regret that we have no assurance of this. On June 15, 2020, the Ontario Government announced in a news release that it was now making available new teaching materials during the COVID-19 crisis, under the headline: “Ontario Develops Additional Learning Materials for Students and Teachers”. The AODA Alliance promptly wrote senior officials at the Ministry of Education to ask what steps were taken to ensure that these new educational materials are accessible to people with disabilities, and asking what was done to include tips for teaching students with disabilities. The Ministry has not answered as of the time this brief was submitted.

We therefore recommend that:

#14. The Ministry of Education should immediately put in place an effective proactive team to gather teaching strategies for students with disabilities during distance learning from frontline teachers, parents and school boards and make these easily available to the frontlines on an ongoing basis, in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities. These should be supplemented by strategies that the Ministry researches from other jurisdictions that have innovated creative solutions.

 13. Distance Learning Must Be Effectively Provided for Students Who Cannot Return to School

When schools re-open, each school board will have a duty to accommodate its students with disabilities in school unless the school board can prove that it is impossible to do so without undue hardship. There may be some students who cannot return to school when others do. Their disability may make it impossible to accommodate them in school under the restrictions that apply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students may not be able to return to school because their parents or other family members with whom they live are so medically vulnerable or immuno-compromised that the family must take heightened precautions to avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19.

In those cases, even if other students are learning at school, the school board must provide effective and accessible distance learning for those students who must remain at home. This may include home visits from teaching staff. In this, students with disabilities must be more effectively and consistently served during distance learning than was the case in the spring.

We therefore recommend that:

#15 The plans for return to school must include measures for ensuring that those who cannot return to school at the same time can secure effective distance learning, including home visits (with social distancing) from teaching staff.

 14. Creating Provincial Resources for Parents to Prepare Their Students for Return to School

Some students with disabilities will need extensive preparation at home for their eventual return to school, including learning about social distancing and other new school practices due to COVID-19. Some parents will need a great deal of time to deal with this. Each school board or teacher and family should not have to duplicate these efforts by inventing their own curriculum, social stories or other resources.

We therefore recommend that:

#16. The Ministry of Education should prepare teaching materials for teachers and parents to use, addressing different disability-related learning needs, for preparing students with disabilities for the return to school, to address such changes as social distancing.

 15. New Protocols Needed for Safe School Bussing

There were ample problems with bussing of students with disabilities to school before the COVID-19 crisis. In any return to school, heightened safeguards will be needed, including frequent sanitization of busses, ensuring students are seated more than 2 meters from each other and ensuring that the driver has PPE and doesn’t risk spreading COVID-19. It is not realistic to expect that this will all simply happen with private sector bussing companies who employ casual and part time drivers working at low wages.

We therefore recommend that:

#17. The Ministry of Education should create, fund and effectively enforce new standards for safe bussing practices for students with disabilities during any return to school while COVID-19 remains a community threat.

 16. Ensure Very Active Engagement of Each School Board’s Special Education Advisory Committee

Each Ontario school board is required to have a Special Education Advisory Committee to advise it on special education issues. We understand that some have met regularly during the school closures, using conference calls or virtual online meeting platforms. Others have not met regularly, from what we have heard.

SEACs have a great deal to offer in this area. In making our recommendations about SEACs, we note that SEACs are not required to include representation regarding students with all kinds of disabilities. They are instead required only to have members that represent families whose students whose disability falls within the more limited definition of “exceptionality” that the Ministry of Education uses. Of course, it is open to a school board to have its SEAC have a more inclusive membership. It is also open to SEAC members to speak to any needs of any students with disabilities . School boards and the Ontario Government must ensure that they get input regarding students with any and all kinds of disabilities.

It is essential that each school board ensures that its Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) is meeting at least once per month, if not more, during the COVID-19pandemic, including during the transition to re-opening. While they usually don’t meet during the summer, they should meet if possible during the 2020 summer. They should be fully engaged in planning for the needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 period.

Their volunteer efforts would have more impact if the Ministry of Education took two easy steps. First, the Minister should create a virtual network or listserv to enable SEACs to share their work with each other. No such network now exists. As well, the Ministry should collect input from all Ontario’s SEACs on their concerns and advice given during the COVID-19 era, as this is a readily-available avenue to more front-line experience of students with disabilities.

We therefore recommend that:

#18. Each school board should ensure that its Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) meets at least once per month, and preferably more often, during the COVID-19 crisis, to give its board ongoing input into planning for students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis.

#19. To get the most from the volunteer work of SEACs around Ontario, the Ministry of Education should:

  1. a) Create and maintain a listserv or other virtual network of all Ontario SEACs, to enable them to share their efforts with all other SEACs around Ontario, and
  1. b) Frequently gather input from SEACs around Ontario about the experiences of students with disabilities during the COVID-19crisis.

Appendix – List of Recommendations

#1. The Ministry of Education should immediately develop, announce and implement a comprehensive plan for meeting the learning needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis. This plan should include during this time of distance learning, during an eventual return to school, and in case of a future COVID-19 wave that requires another round of school closures. To the extent possible, this plan should be an integral part of the Ministry’s overall plan it is developing for school re-opening.

#2. The Ministry of Education should immediately establish a “Students with Disabilities Education Command Table” to oversee the development and implementation of a Government action plan for meeting the urgent learning needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis, and to swiftly react to issues for students with disabilities as they arise.

#3. The Ministry of Education should immediately issue a policy direction to all school boards, imposing restrictions on when and how a principal may exclude a student from school. including directions that:

#4. For each student with disabilities, each school board should now:

  1. a) Contact the family of each student with disabilities, preferably by phone rather than email, to discuss and identify the student’s progress during the school shutdown, the student’s specific and individualized disability-related deficits and needs arising from and during distance learning due to the COVID-19crisis and the student’s needs and challenges related to eventual transition to school (including any vulnerabilities of other family members due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and;
  1. b) Create a COVID-19 IEP to set specific goals and activities to effectively address their disability-related needs during distance learning, and in connection with transition back to school.

#5. The Ministry of Education should assign staff to assist its Students with Disabilities Command Table by serving as a central rapid response team to receive feedback from school boards on recurring issues facing students with disabilities and to help find solutions to share with school boards.

#6. The Ministry should direct that each school board shall establish a similar central rapid response team within the board to receive and act on feedback from teachers, principals and families about problems they are encountering serving students with disabilities during the COVID-19 period, that will quickly network with other similar offices at other school boards, and that can report recurring issues to the Ministry.

#7. The Ministry of Education should plan for, fund and coordinate the provision by school boards of a surge in specialized disability supports to those students with disabilities who will need them when students return to school.

#8. The Ministry of Education’s plan for school re-openings must include detailed directions on required measures for ensuring that students with disabilities are safe from COVID-19 during any return to school. This requires additional planning in advance by school boards and additional funding to school boards to hire and train the additional SNAs and EAs they will need to ensure the safety of students with disabilities. It also requires safeguards to ensure that an EA or SNA does not work at multiple sites and risk transmitting the COVID-19 virus from one location to another.

#9. The Ministry of Education should immediately engage an arms-length digital accessibility consultant to evaluate the comparative accessibility of different digital meeting platforms available for use in Ontario schools. This should involve end-user testing. The Ministry should immediately send the resulting report and comparison to all school boards and make it public. This should be revisited as the fall approaches, in case there have been changes to the relative accessibility of different virtual meeting platforms. The Ministry should direct which platforms may be used and which may not be used for virtual or synchronous classes or parent/school meetings, based on their accessibility.

#10. The Ministry of Education should immediately direct TVO to make its online learning content accessible to people with disabilities, and to promptly make public a plan of action to achieve this goal, with specific milestones and timelines.

#11. The Ministry of Education should make public a plan of action to swiftly make its own online learning content accessible for people with disabilities, setting out milestones and timelines, and should report to the public on its progress.

#12. The Ministry of Education should direct all its staff and all school boards that whenever making digital information public in a PDF format, it must at the same time also be made available in an accessible format such as an accessible MS Word document.

#13. The provincial plans for return to school should include these features:

  1. a) Rather than having all students across Ontario return to school at once, in a one-size-fits-all strategy, the Ontario Government should lead a strategic return to school process, trying out different approaches to see what works most effectively. For example, opening a few schools first to detect recurring problems and plan to prevent them would assist with opening of other schools across Ontario.
  1. b) The COVID-19 IEP of each student with disabilities should tailor their plans for the return to school to meet their individual needs. Students with disabilities who need this accommodation should be afforded a chance to return to the school facility early so they can be oriented to any changes to which they need to adjust in the COVID-19 era.

#14. The Ministry of Education should immediately put in place an effective proactive team to gather teaching strategies for students with disabilities during distance learning from frontline teachers, parents and school boards and make these easily available to the frontlines on an ongoing basis, in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities. These should be supplemented by strategies that the Ministry researches from other jurisdictions that have innovated creative solutions.

#15 The plans for return to school must include measures for ensuring that those who cannot return to school at the same time can secure effective distance learning, including home visits (with social distancing) from teaching staff.

#16. The Ministry of Education should prepare teaching materials for teachers and parents to use, addressing different disability-related learning needs, for preparing students with disabilities for the return to school, to address such changes as social distancing.

#17. The Ministry of Education should create, fund and effectively enforce new standards for safe bussing practices for students with disabilities during any return to school while COVID-19 remains a community threat.

#18. Each school board should ensure that its Special Education Advisory Committee(SEAC) meets at least once per month, and preferably more often, during the COVID-19 crisis, to give its board ongoing input into planning for students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis.

#19. To get the most from the volunteer work of SEACs around Ontario, the Ministry of Education should:

  1. a) Create and maintain a listserv or other virtual network of all Ontario SEACs, to enable them to share their efforts with all other SEACs around Ontario, and
  1. b) Frequently gather input from SEACs around Ontario about the experiences of students with disabilities during the COVID-19crisis.