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Shantel Sherwood, an advocate for special needs education, poses with her sons Orrin (left) and Arlo in Edmonton, handout/Courtesy of family

When Shantel Sherwood’s oldest son Orrin is in class, he needs help to stay focused and communicate his needs. If the six-year-old, who has severe autism, feels overwhelmed, spending time in a sensory room can help him cool down.

Ms. Sherwood was already worried about the start of school in the fall after changes to Alberta’s education budgeting in March left many parents whose children have special needs unsure whether their child would have adequate resources. The COVID-19 pandemic only deepened those anxieties, as she struggled to decide whether her son would attend in-person classes without knowing, for example, whether he would have the full-time education assistant that she had requested.

Ms. Sherwood said she found out the night before in-person classes started this past week that her son would receive an educational assistant for part of the day. The sensory room at his school, which is set up with comforting items, has been closed because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Sidelining special-needs students is what the government and boards have been doing forever, but COVID-19 is just making the gaps even more apparent,” she said.

Families in Alberta and across the country have been forced to make decisions about their children’s education and whether to send them to school at all, in some cases with incomplete information about what the year will look like. Once they decide, they can be locked in for months or longer before they will be able to switch, for example, from in-person learning to online classes.

Special-needs advocacy groups say parents weren’t provided sufficient information on what supports their child would receive before they had to decide whether to move their children to online schooling. They are additionally concerned by last March’s provincial budget, which they say prompted school boards to reduce resources for special-needs students.

Alberta’s education budget, rolled out prior to the pandemic, changed the formula for how a school’s funding is calculated. Now it’s based on the average of the past three years' enrolment, instead of the current year.

The Alberta Teachers' Association and other critics of the government argue that even though the overall budget for education has increased by about $120-million, the budget translates to a per-student cut because it is not keeping up with increased enrolment. The teachers' union asserts that education funding will fall by an average of $464 a student across the province.

In an e-mail, Colin Aitchison, the press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said parents of students who are unhappy with the special-needs plans for the 2020-21 school year should contact their local trustee. He noted the increase in the education budget but did not address the per-student funding issue.

“If a school board is providing less support for their students than they did previously, they are doing this despite receiving an increase in funding,” the e-mail said.

Trish Bowman, the chief executive of non-profit group Inclusion Alberta, says school boards are responding to the reduction in funding by cutting special-needs supports.

The cuts, she says, are affecting a range of supports that studies say improve special-needs children’s ability to attend and succeed in school. The Calgary Board of Education, which is the largest school board in Alberta, has reduced this school year’s number of bus attendants from 230 to 70.

Bus attendants assist in special-needs students’ transportation, and without them, parents will need to drive their children to school themselves or trust that the bus driver will be able to ensure their child’s safety, Ms. Bowman said.

Additionally, Program Unit Funding, which provides funding for educational assistants to students at the preschool and kindergarten level, and which Ms. Sherwood’s son had previously qualified for, has been reduced by 70 per cent. The provincial government says funds have been redirected to a larger K-12 program for learning supports.

Inclusion Alberta has found the drop in both per-student and PUF funding, in combination with the additional expenses owing to COVID-19, means many parents of special-needs students are being told their child will not receive the support needed to integrate into a regular classroom.

“We are hearing from a number of families that the schools have told them their child can no longer be in regular classrooms and should be in congregated classrooms [special-education classrooms] because the schools don’t have funding to support special needs children in regular classrooms,” Ms. Bowman said.

“We know from years of research that kids who are integrated into regular classrooms with proper supports, they excel.”

Mr. Aitchison, the Education Minister’s press secretary, did not address the issue of congregated classrooms.

Stefanie Kaiser, a mother of three in Calgary, whose 10-year-old daughter Claire has severe cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and feeding tube, is particularly worried about her child getting infected.

She kept Claire at home for the first week, even as classes at her school started, to take more time to decide whether her daughter, who attends a school specific for special-needs children, would attend in-person classes. Claire went back to school on Tuesday.

She said the stress extends throughout her family. Her eldest daughter is entering Grade 10, and is taking her high school’s international baccalaureate program, which is only available in person. She’s worried about coming home and infecting her sister.

“It was a very stressful time and in the weeks leading up to the start of school and the deadline of online registration – we were given very little information about what school would be like for each of our girls," she said.

“There is only so much they [teachers] can do. Our eldest daughter’s math class has 45 kids in it. We really feel that the schools and teachers have done an exceptional job of dealing with a very difficult situation, and that the responsibility for large class sizes and limited resources lies with the provincial government.”

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