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Schools in Southern Ontario are open to students with special needs, which is a relief to families but is also causing concern among educators about their safety amid rising COVID-19 infections.

The province said last week that it was extending remote learning for another two weeks for students in 27 southern regions. But one feature of the government’s plan received little attention: While most students would remain home, classrooms for children with complex needs would be left open.

Parents say their children need to be in schools because supports can’t be replicated at home. In the physical classroom, though, educators are worried because many students aren’t able to wear masks, and the nature of one-on-one instruction renders physical distancing an impossibility.

“Why is it permissible to risk the health and safety of us as staff, our vulnerable students, but it’s not okay for anybody else?” asked Krista Macdonald, an educational assistant in Windsor. Ms. Macdonald said she feels anxious going into the school building, where she and other educators have to help toilet and feed some of their students.

Self-contained classrooms are typically small with around 10 students with severe learning disabilities, developmental disabilities or speech and language disorders. There are multiple adults in the room, including a teacher and educational assistants.

Julia Hanigsberg, the president of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, said school is not only a place of learning for children with special needs, but it also provides the necessary health care interventions. Children with disabilities need the structure of a classroom to learn, she added. She acknowledged the concerns of educators, but also said that they are caring for a vulnerable population that has been affected by COVID-19. “They are on the front lines. They are doing incredible work,” she said.

Ottawa mother Kerry Monaghan said she was relieved to receive a call from her son’s principal on Monday morning to ask whether she would like Jack, her seven year old, to return to school this week. Jack is severely autistic and is unable to learn remotely.

Ms. Monaghan understands the risk of sending her son into a school building. Jack is unable to wear a mask. But he’s also in a small class and without the support of his educational assistant, he would not receive any type of schooling.

“Everyone talks about falling behind, but that’s something that has increased exponentially for us,” Ms. Monaghan said. “When your child is sitting around literally doing nothing, and they can’t engage in any type of constructive activity without support … it’s a struggle.”

Susan Cosgrove, a Toronto mother, posted a picture on social media on Monday of her seven-year-old son, Phoenix, riding the school bus. Ms. Cosgrove lives in a high-rise in Thorncliffe Park, which has been a COVID-19 hot spot. She said it was difficult to have her son home this past week during the shutdown.

“There’s a reason he’s in a highly specialized school environment. He needs a great deal of support,” Ms. Cosgrove said. “Having him home, everything stops.”

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said he is concerned that there is inconsistency among boards as to which students are returning to in-person instruction. Although some boards have put specific criteria in place for which students can return, others have “thrown the doors open” and left the decision to families. “Heaven knows we want these kids to be supported. But we have educators who are terrified that they’re being put in situations that truly are risky,” Mr. Bischof said.

Special education teacher Paul Santagapita understands that it’s a difficult situation for families and educators. Mr. Santagapita, who teachers in London, said one of his students wasn’t able to do any work online this past week during the shutdown.

Mr. Santagapita said he was “uneasy” to return the classroom on Monday as COVID-19 cases rise and many of his colleagues have been told to stay home.

“I love my students, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But these are students that either don’t wear masks, because they can’t, or when they do wear masks, they can’t wear it properly.”

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