Since Monday, students with special educational needs have been back in the classroom for Niagara public and Catholic schools.
As part of initial lockdown orders that were issued on Dec. 21, the government ordered school boards “to make provisions for continued in-person support for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated through remote learning for whom remote learning is challenging.”
Niagara Catholic District School Board said it had 105 elementary students with complex special needs return to class at 33 schools on Monday.
In addition, 60 students returned to classrooms at all eight Catholic high schools. In each case, students were met by teachers and support staff to support their learning.
As a result of the students returning to class, approximately 300 teachers and support staff returned to work in-person to support these students with complex special education needs.
“Niagara Catholic continues to limit the number of staff in our schools and sites to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” education director Camillo Cipriano said.
“We are confident that the numbers in each building provide adequate safety and supervision for the students at the school while remaining in line with the provincial directive to reduce the number of staff in our schools.”
Before the Christmas break, Niagara Catholic acquired more than 80 electrostatic disinfecting machines for cleaning. Ciprian said the machines increase the area being cleaned in a much shorter time and reduce the need to use cleaning cloths.
“At least one staff member in each school has already been trained to use the machine, and we are expanding training to facilities services staff this week to ensure we have multiple staff trained and able to use the machines when schools reopen,” said Cipriano.
District School Board of Niagara did not confirm the numbers of staff and students who have returned to school, but education director Warren Hoshizaki said the board did consult with families.
“DSBN administrators and staff consult with each family and student, and many students chose the opportunity to learn remotely with the various remote supports provided by the DSBN,” he said.
“However, some parents chose to have their student with special education needs to be accommodated through in-person learning. We have provided this alternative to many families.”
In a media release issued last week, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation union local 22 District was critical of students returning to the classroom.
“The government has indicated that there will be additional funding provided to increase safety. However, teacher members of OSSTF/FEESO District 22 will already be back in schools, putting themselves, their families and the Niagara communities that they live in at risk,” said OSSTF president Shannon Smith.
“We call on the Ford government to engage in collaboration and consultation with front-line educators to address the shortfalls in their plans for the education of all Ontario students.”
Smith said educational workers had not been afforded access to some of the emergency measures offered to other sectors of front-line workers, such as child care.
“Teachers play an essential role in providing Niagara students with access to quality education, and they deserve to be recognized for the ongoing support and dedication that they have demonstrated throughout this pandemic,” said Smith.
Said Hoshizaki, “Our school safety protocols for students and staff have been approved by both the Ministry of Education and public health and have been effectively practised since school began in September 2020.
“They include daily self-screening, frequent handwashing, wearing a mask if age-appropriate, and enhanced cleaning program and more,” he said.
Sean Vanderklis is a Niagara-based reporter for the Niagara Falls Review. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him via email: [email protected]