What are the Ford Government’s Plans for Ensuring that One Third of a Million Students with Disabilities are Fully and Safely Included During School Re-Opening Next Month?

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/

What are the Ford Government’s Plans for Ensuring that One Third of a Million Students with Disabilities are Fully and Safely Included During School Re-Opening Next Month?

August 17, 2020

          SUMMARY

With just two weeks left in August, what are the Ford Government’s plans to ensure that one third of a million students with disabilities will be fully and safely included in Ontario schools when they re-open next month? The Ford Government has received excellent advice on what it needs to do. We are still waiting for it to unveil a comprehensive plan of action, so that 72 school boards are not left to flounder, reinventing the wheel, with the serious risk that they may get it wrong. The Ford Government has had five months to plan for this issue.

On August 4, 2020, we asked senior Ministry of Education officials in writing for any announcements on this topic. The Government has not provided anything in response.

This issue bears on the needs of at least one out of every six students in Ontario-funded schools. The Ford Government’s recently announced plan for school re-opening allocated an additional $10 million to school boards for meeting the needs of students with special education needs. This boils down to a total of $34 for each such student. That will fund very little for each student.

Over three weeks ago, on July 24, 2020, the Ford Government received a comprehensive and excellent set of recommendations on what the Ontario Government and school boards need to do to fully and safely include students with disabilities during school re-opening. That report came from the COVID-19 subcommittee of the Government-appointed K-12 Education Standards Development Committee. The Government knew that this report was coming and had seen earlier drafts.

Moreover, in June, the Government received detailed recommendations on this important subject from the public, including the 19 recommendations in the AODA Alliance’s June 19, 2020 brief on school re-opening. The AODA Alliance ‘s brief was endorsed by several important disability community organizations and by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. The July 24, 2020 recommendations to The Government from the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee’s COVID-19 Subcommittee commendably include, expand upon and add to the 19 recommendations in the AODA Alliance’s June 19, 2020 brief to The Government.

The Government knows what happens when it does not announce a timely plan of action to meet the needs of students with disabilities during this COVID-19 pandemic. Last spring, the Ford Government announced no comprehensive plan of action to ensure that the learning needs of students with disabilities were met during distance learning while schools were closed due to COVID-19.

Throughout the spring, each school board, each teacher and parent were all left struggling as they tried to figure out what to do to meet the needs of students with disabilities during distance learning. Last spring, we and many others urged the Government to announce such a plan of action and offered our help and advice.

Here are several illustrations of this issue as school re-opening rapidly approaches. As a first illustration, back on July 8, 2020, Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce commendably stated in the Ontario legislature that on the AODA Alliance’s advice, he is directing all school boards as follows regarding parents of students with disabilities:

“We’ve asked for a check-in of every parent by the school board to ensure that they’ve got the tools they will need to succeed. “

However, we have not yet seen that direction being given to school boards. We have not heard that all school boards have been following this direction in the weeks leading up to school re-opening. We set out below the relevant excerpt from the transcript of that day’s Question Period proceeding in the Legislature.

As a second illustration, we have still seen no plan of action from the Ontario Government or its public education TV network, TVO, to make the Government’s and TVO’s online educational content and teaching tools accessible for students, parents and teachers with disabilities. Over three months ago, at the May 4, 2020 online town hall on teaching students with disabilities, which was organized by the AODA Alliance and the Ontario Autism Coalition, we made public the fact that there are serious accessibility problems with the Ministry of Education’s online materials for teachers, parents and students during distance learning and with the distance learning resources on TVO’s website. The Ford Government had repeatedly proclaimed that TVO was its major partner during the COVID-19 pandemic for delivering online courses to students while schools were closed.

On May 21, 2020, the AODA Alliance wrote TVO’s vice president of digital content. We reiterated these concerns and called for TVO to adopt and implement a plan of action to fix this. Our letter confirmed the content of an earlier phone call between the TVO vice president and AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky. Since then, we have not heard a word from TVO and have not seen any plan of action from TVO or the Ford Government to solve this. This fall, when school re-opens, Ontario’s education program will still need to deliver online education. This will be needed for students who opt not to attend school in person, for students whose in-class programs will be delivered in part through distance learning, and for all students if a second COVID-19 wave requires schools to again close.

The Ministry of Education and TVO have now had ample time to address this problem – one that should never have occurred in the first place. The Ministry’s and TVO’s duties to ensure the accessibility of their online content has existed for years. The Ford Government claims to be “leading by example” on accessibility for people with disabilities. These are illustrations of their leading by a very poor example.

As a third example, the Ford Government has not announced any concrete measures to prevent a rash of school principals sending some students with disabilities home when schools re-open, using their arbitrary power to refuse to admit some students or others to school at all. On July 23, 2020, the AODA Alliance made public its extensive and detailed report that shows that for much of Ontario, school principals are a law unto themselves when it comes to their sweeping power under section 265(1)(m) of the Education Act to refuse to admit a student or others to school. The AODA Alliance ‘s concerns about this have been covered several times in the media. For example, we set out below the excellent August 10, 2020 article on the AODA Alliance‘s report in “QP Briefing” a very influential publication about important events at Queen’s Park.

Among its many compelling July 24, 2020 recommendations, the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee’s COVID-19 Subcommittee urged the Government to take action on this issue. That report recommends:

“11) To promote transparency, accountability and identify trends, the Ministry of Education should immediately issue a policy direction for boards to create an exclusion policy, that imposes restrictions on when and how a principal may exclude a student from school, including directions that:

  1. a) Does not impede, create barrier, or disproportionally increase burdens for students with disabilities the right to attend school for the entire 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) Tracks exclusions and provides a transparent procedure and practice to parents/guardians, by requiring a principal who refuses to admit a student to school during the school re-opening process to immediately give the student and their parent/guardian 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 parent/guardian’s right to appeal this refusal to admit to the school board.
  1. c) Tracks exclusions, increases accountability and informs policies by requiring a principal who refuses to admit a student to school for all or part of the school day 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 regular basis to the board of trustees, the public and the Ministry of Education (with individual information totally anonymized).”

In the weeks since the AODA Alliance made public its detailed July 23, 2020 report on principals’ power to refuse to admit a student to school, the Government has issued no detailed policy direction to school boards to rein in the power to refuse to admit a student to school. no public servants from Ontario’s Ministry of Education have contacted the AODA Alliance to discuss its report or to seek any further information about our research and revelations on this important topic.

The final illustration reflects a broader difficulty with the Ford Government’s overall approach to accessibility for people with disabilities, including in Ontario’s education system. Earlier this summer, the Ford Government announced that it was spending over a half billion dollars on building new schools and expanding existing ones. Yet it announced no new measures to ensure that those new building projects will be accessible to students, parents and school staff with disabilities. Since we made this concern public, we have seen no Government announcement fixing this problem.

For more background on these issues, visit

* The AODA Alliance’s COVID-19 web page and our education accessibility web page.

* 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.

* 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.

* The AODA Alliance’s June 19, 2020 brief to the Ford Government on how to meet the needs of students with disabilities during school re-opening.

* 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

Ontario Hansard July 8, 2020

 

Question Period

 

Mr. Joel Harden: My question is for the Premier. Speaker, students with disabilities and their families are wondering when this government will announce something—anything—to make sure that their learning needs are going to be supported this fall. COVID-19 has hit people with disabilities particularly hard in many ways, including the move to distanced learning. Online platforms are not always accessible for all students, and in-class resources are more difficult or even impossible to access from home.

Without new supports, Speaker, there’s a real risk that students who were already struggling before COVID and during COVID will continue to struggle this fall when schools reopen, in whatever form the government decides they can. Premier, will you release a plan to ensure that all learners, particularly those with disabilities, will be supported?

The Speaker (Hon. Ted Arnott): The Minister of Education.

 

Hon. Stephen Lecce: I want to thank the member opposite for the question. We do agree that these particular children will need continued support and heightened levels of support, given the challenges that they would have faced over the past months while being at home.

What I’ve directed school boards to do for this summer is to continue to provide a continuity of access to special education and mental health supports that normally would end at the end of school in June. We’ve asked them to continue funding those to create continuity. We’ve asked them, for September, for their IEPs and IPRCs to continue unimpeded. We’ve asked for a check-in of every parent by the school board to ensure that they’ve got the tools they will need to succeed. We’ve added additional funding in special education this year in the GSN—the highest contribution ever made. We’ve also added an additional $10 million to hire more psychologists and more psychotherapists, as well as other important social workers to assist these students.

We know that there is more to do in this respect. We’ve added additional funding in the Support for Students Fund. There’s more support specifically tailored for spec ed educators because we know they’re going to be important to the restart and to the success of these young people in September.

 

The Speaker (Hon. Ted Arnott): The supplementary question?

 

Mr. Joel Harden: I heard earlier the minister talking about a four-year math plan. I have a simple proposition to the government: Given this phone that the people of Ontario have given to me—they pay for it—why not a four-minute phone plan, Minister? Why not pick up the phone and call David Lepofsky from the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, which has given your government a brief to which they’ve heard no response yet about how they can help students with disabilities this fall? They’ve made appeals to this government, Speaker; their appeals have not been answered. Their brief is supported by 10 disability rights organizations and a major teachers’ union.

Speaker, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. All this government and all this minister needs to do is answer the voice mails, answer the multiple emails, answer the appeals.

In all sincerity, Speaker, after the break of question period, I’m happy to sanitize my phone, walk across the aisle, and give the minister—

 

The Speaker (Hon. Ted Arnott): I overlooked it the first time, but you can’t use props during question period or in the House.

Response?

 

Hon. Stephen Lecce: You know, Speaker, I actually speak to Mr. Lepofsky quite often. I spoke to him just two weeks ago in advance of our reopening plan. I’ve spoken to the AODA Alliance, and likewise I’ve spoken to the Minister’s Advisory Council on Special Education on a biweekly basis throughout this pandemic. So you don’t need to share your phone; I am in contact with him, and I care deeply about it.

In fact, it was his opinion and his recommendation to me that there be a check-in of every student by the school boards before September. We adopted that recommendation; I thought that was prudent.

Speaker, in addition, what he has also called for is additional access to support and funding. What we’ve done is increased the GSN, the largest investment in special education, because we recognize, most especially with those families, that they face challenges. We’re going to continue to invest in them.

We’re going to continue to provide mandatory professional development for all educators in the area of mental health, and we’re going to continue to ensure that there is staffing in place to help these kids succeed in September.

QP Briefing August 10, 2020

ADVOCATES FEAR ‘RASH OF EXCLUSIONS’ OF SPECIAL NEEDS STUDENTS WHEN SCHOOLS REOPEN

10.08.2020 By Sneh Duggal, Queen’s Park Briefing

Disability and autism advocates are concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic could result in principals keeping more students with disabilities out of classrooms this fall and are calling on the government to create a “consistent exclusion policy” for the province.

“We’re concerned about the real risk of a rash of exclusions and part of the problem is that principals aren’t getting enough direction and support from the province for COVID for working for students with disabilities,” said David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance advocacy group. “We are worried because we know that this power has been arbitrarily used before COVID, there’s nothing about COVID that will make that risk reduce.”

The power Lepofsky said school administrators have is outlined in the Ontario Education Act, which gives principals the right “to refuse to admit to the school or classroom a 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.”

The issue, Lepofsky said, is that there isn’t one single policy across the province, with research from his group showing that while some school boards have policies around exclusions, others don’t. With increased pressure and uncertainty around the reopening of schools during a global pandemic, Lepofsky fears “some principals could well use their power to tell some of those students with disabilities to just stay home, to refuse to admit them to school.”

Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a high school teacher, noted that exclusions, which she described as the removal of a student from school for an indefinite period of time, can take different forms. Kirby-McIntosh, who raised the issue of exclusions with Lepofsky at Queen’s Park in early 2019, has previously spoken of her autistic son who she said had “one meltdown” and was kept out of school for six months.

While some exclusions might be more formalized with a letter being sent to the parent, others might be less so, she said.

“It’s that phone call you get at 10 o’clock in the morning saying ‘Johnny’s got here, but he’s not coping well, can you come and pick him up?’ It’s the call you get from the principal saying, ‘you know what, we need to start Suzy on half days, I’m not sure we’ve got enough to support her for a full day, so we’re just going to bring her in for half a day, or an hour a day.’

“Those are soft exclusions and they happen all of the time, and our kids lose hundreds of hours of instructional time to soft exclusions,” she said. “It’s a very arbitrary power; where suspensions and expulsions have very strict rules around them, exclusions are still very fuzzy and very much up to the individual discretion of the principal, and therein lies the problem.”

There is particular concern within the autism community about what could happen this fall, she noted. Thousands of children with autism have been out of routine and therapy for months, meaning some might have lost certain skills, Kirby-McIntosh said.

Returning to school in the middle of a global pandemic is a “very unusual school experience,” she said, noting that people will be wearing masks and be distanced.

“It’s a very tumultuous situation and transitions for kids with autism are hard at the best of times, but the type of transition that we’re asking them to prepare for now is a really unusual one,” she said. “You could have a kid go who experiences sensory overload, is scared by the masks, has been at home for six months and is not used to being around this many people and is overwhelmed by the smells and the sounds and the sights of all of it and as a result has a meltdown and acts out.”

“My fear is that the temptation for the principal is going to be to just use exclusion and to just say, ‘Sorry, it’s a global pandemic, we can’t keep you safe so you have to go home,'” she said.

Lepofsky said while not all students with disabilities are excluded from school, anecdotal feedback from parents over the years has suggested it is “disproportionately used on those kids.”

The AODA Alliance released a report in July detailing the results of a survey to school boards about exclusion policies. Lepofsky said half didn’t respond, but the group found that just 33 of 72 boards had any sort of policy on exclusions. He said they were “wild variations” from one board to the next, with the Toronto District School Board, for example, outlining that an exclusion can last five days and then be extended, while others set no time limit.

“These are entirely arbitrary and unfair differences,” said Lepofsky. “Before COVID and even more so in light of COVID, we need the province to step up to the plate now and to issue detailed directions setting firm practices across the province on when and how a refusal to admit can take place.” Some of the requirements he outlined included setting maximum time limits for exclusions or requiring that boards have a meeting with the family before a “refusal to admit is imposed.”

The Ministry of Education and Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office did not directly respond to questions about whether the government would be issuing any guidance on the use of exclusions, develop a provincewide set of requirements for exclusions or support tracking the use of them.

Ministry spokesperson Ingrid Anderson stated in an email that for students with high special education needs, the government is “directing school boards to facilitate full-time in-school instruction, regardless of whether a secondary school begins the instructional year using an adapted model.”

Anderson then pointed to the $309 million the government has announced to help with the reopening of schools during COVID-19, including $10 million to support special needs students and $30 million for additional staffing for smaller classes or “other safety-related measures.”

Lepofsky said special needs funding envelopes were “underfunded before,” but that his asks aren’t about money. Identifying a provincewide attendance code that schools can use to indicate an exclusion, for example, doesn’t come at a cost, he said.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said the organization is “aware of concerns about the practice of exclusions from our member school boards, as well as members of the public, and have requested that education stakeholders, including trustees, be part of any future consultation in this area.”

“The changes to suspensions, as a result of the recent passing of Bill 197, offers an opportunity for the government to consult with education partners to ensure that the term ‘exclusions’ be clearly defined. Should the government seek to consult on this, our association will be ready to provide expert advice based on feedback from trustees and senior school board staff,” Abraham said.

Ann Pace, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC), said in an email that exclusions aren’t used to discipline students, but rather “when there are serious safety concerns, such as when a student’s actions or presence is detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of other students.”

“While it is always the goal of all educators that students attend school, there are, unfortunately, some instances in which the needs of a student cannot be met due to a lack of human or financial resources,” Pace said. “When necessary, these decisions are made by a principal, but only after consulting with board officials and supervisory officers.”

She stressed that principals should be part of any conversations related to boards implementing requirements for exclusions and that consideration should be given to things like the safety and well-being of the student, their classmates, and staff, the ability of the school

to provide the needed resources and support the student and the capacity of the parent to do the same.

The OPC did say it’s open to tracking the use of exclusions.

“As long as this is not a labour-intensive process, it could be done by school principals. Indeed, it may reveal how rarely they occur,” Pace said.

As part of plans to reopen schools, one focus is on supports for students with disabilities and special needs, she added.

“School boards have implemented a transition plan for high needs students prior to the official start of the 2020-2021 school year to mitigate the issues that would create a barrier for a successful return for those students who we believe have been most impacted by a six-month withdrawal from the structure and routine of school,” said Pace. “We recognize the stress that the closure has placed on families, and we have advocated for additional supports to promote a successful transition back to school.”