As the 2021-2022 school year starts, parents and staff still have many questions and concerns. A lot has been learned over the past year, and we are at a different stage in the pandemic. One of the most important lessons has been the negative impacts of social isolation on the mental health of students. Children need to learn in person for both their academic and social benefit. However, this needs to be balanced with the continued risks associated with COVID-19 and especially the Delta variant.
Parents were surveyed at the end of the last school year and the vast majority want to see their child back at school for in-person learning. To support the return to school the government has invested in school ventilation systems to improve airflow and circulation. These measures plus high vaccination rates of adults and youth over age 12 in Ontario may also help to reduce risks for students in the classroom.
Whether your child is returning to in-person learning or remaining at home, most families will confront new scenarios and new decisions as they return to school this fall. To help navigate the year ahead, this article outlines many issues that students with disabilities and their families may face and provides tips to support a successful 2021-2022 school year.
Students with Physical Disabilities
For students with physical disabilities and health conditions, that make them more vulnerable, a return to the classroom may not be possible this fall. For these students and others, remote learning at home will continue. Remote learning has its own challenges and although a lot of improvements have been made since spring 2020, supports for students with disabilities at home have not been great.
PARENT TIP: If your child will be learning at home request a school meeting to review the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) and identify what accommodations, programs and services will be provided at home. Any individualized equipment or assistive technology that is needed should be provided.
For students with physical disabilities, one of the greatest challenges of school closures and remote learning has been the lack of access to school rehabilitation services. In August, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services announced new funding to support students with special education needs, stating:
“This funding will build additional service capacity and reduce wait times in the children’s services sector, enabling providers to serve up to 10,000 more preschool-aged children with speech and language needs and up to 47,000 more children and youth with rehabilitation needs annually. It will also support equitable access to service by addressing local challenges to recruitment and retention of clinical staff in northern, remote and/or rural communities.”
PARENT TIP: Talk to your child’s classroom teacher or therapist about the plans to re-start School Health Rehabilitation Services in your school and school board. Try to find out when your child’s therapy will start again, recognizing it may take time for the services to be re-established.
One of the big concerns for the return to school is learning loss. The Ministry of Education has provided extra funding for schools for learning recovery to be able to assess students and develop plans for supporting students to catch up. However, experts are also recommending that the first few weeks of school focus on re-engaging learners and helping them to adjust to new routines, classmates and the teacher. A recent article in the SaultOnline newspaper, Some Ontario Boards Taking Individual Approach to ‘Learning Loss’ as Classes Approach, has identified that school boards will take different approaches to learning.
PARENT TIP: As your child heads back to school ask the teacher what the plans are for your child’s class to help students re-adjust to in-person learning and assess academic abilities and skills. You can also ask how you can support your child at home through the first weeks of back to school.
The pandemic has had a negative impact on students and many more are reporting mental health challenges including anxiety and depression. The Ministry of Education has increased investment in mental health supports by providing extra funds to school boards. Schools are increasing their capacity to support students with mental health challenges and also to promote positive mental health. Schools are the ideal environment for the promotion, prevention and early intervention in mental health. This is an important strategy to increase student resiliency.
PARENT TIP: If you have concerns about your child’s mental health check the school board website for information on mental health supports available at school. School Mental Health Ontario has resources to support students in crisis and families of students with mental health concerns about their child.
Sports and Extra-Curricular Activities
The loss of in-person learning, sports and extracurricular activities has seriously reduced opportunities for socialization and connections with other students. The plans for this fall include a return to music, sports and extracurricular activities. These plans have been approved by public health units and are in the best interest of the students.
PARENT TIP: As your child returns to school ask about what school activities they are interested in joining and help the student make the connections to join a team or activity that can provide additional opportunities to develop skills and increase their social circle.
Safe Return to School
Most students are excited about the return to school and seeing their old friends and making new ones. It remains to be seen if schools have done enough to keep our children safe at school, or whether there will be selective or general school shut downs.
PARENT TIP: You can do your part by investigating whether a vaccination is a safe option for your child, and by following the pandemic restrictions that have been so important to keeping us safe:
- Daily COVID-19 symptom screening of each student
- Maintaining physical distance whenever possible
- Wearing masks as directed by the school board policy
- Frequent hand washing
The start of the new school year is always exciting as it is a fresh start with new teachers and the opportunity to make new friends. These parent tips, to help obtain the supports and services your child needs, as well as school board improvements to ventilation and increasing vaccination rates should support a safe return to learning this fall.