Toronto mom Mairead Cavanagh is “worried sick” about her son attending school when there is no mask mandate.
Maleek, 13, is enrolled at Sunny View Junior and Senior Public School, one of 12 of the Toronto District School Board’s congregate schools for children with very complex developmental and physical disabilities. He has a syndrome that causes airway issues and he breathes with the help of a tracheostomy. He is immunocompromised, so any infection can cause severe illness.
Even though the staff at his school wear masks, they’re not required to do so. That’s because, while the Ontario government requires masks for congregate living sites and hospital school settings, it lifted the mandate for all schools on March 21, including specialized school sites like the one Maleek attends.
Parents of medically fragile children must make a difficult decision: Keep their children in school and depend on the goodwill of educators to keep their masks on, or isolate their kids in an online learning environment.
“He adores going to school,” said Ms. Cavanagh, who sent him back to the classroom mid-week after receiving assurances that school staff opted to mask. “We are between a rock and a hard place. I think we’ve determined that he needs to be in school for all these developmental reasons, especially when he’s clinically stable. Now, I have to rely on the choices being made by staff.”
Asked why a mask mandate was not extended to schools with students who have complex needs, W.D. Lighthall, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health, said the government expects these schools to follow the same directive as all public schools, where masks are recommended but not mandated.
Sherry Caldwell, co-founder of the Ontario Disability Coalition, said medically fragile children, some of whom can’t wear masks, need the mandate as an “extra line of protection.”
“We all want COVID to be behind us but clearly, it’s still here, and no one is disposable,” she said. She added that she was disappointed to see the provincial government being so “reckless” at this stage of the pandemic.
Classrooms for special-needs students stayed open through most of the pandemic. Still, many parents say children fell further behind in their development, whether in self-care or communication skills, because they may not have attended school when COVID-19 infections were high and they couldn’t fully manage learning on a screen.
Jeff Crane, the principal at Sunny View, said he received several emails from parents nervous to send their children to school when they heard the mask mandate had been lifted. The school has about 80 students. Two students are on ventilators, and for more than half, an infection could have serious consequences, Mr. Crane said. He doesn’t understand why the government wouldn’t require congregate school sites to continue masking if hospital school settings continue to require it for staff.
Mr. Crane appealed to his staff to keep their masks on. They agreed. “If they don’t, it becomes an uncomfortable situation for everybody,” Mr. Crane said.
Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof’s son, Lucas, attends Beverley School, another TDSB site that provides intensive special-education programming. Lucas, 11, has been diagnosed with autism and has genetic epilepsy.
She said she took a chance when she sent Lucas to school after the mask mandate was lifted, but she also knows that his teachers are wearing their masks.
The TDSB asked the province for direction around masking to protect medically fragile students and staff, but was told masks are not mandatory in any public schools. Ms. Pruska-Oldenhof sits on the school board’s special-education advisory committee, and plans to appeal to trustees and the province to change direction.
“Parents are in this unfortunate situation where they have to choose ‘Will my child be safe?’ or for their skills to stall and atrophy,” she said.
Ajay Sharma, a parent in Mississauga, felt he had no choice but to keep his daughter home. Anakha uses a wheelchair and has multiple disabilities. She has a genetic condition called mitochondrial disease.
Anakha, 7, spent the past two years learning online. She is visually impaired, so that makes it more challenging.
Mr. Sharma said the family was ready to send her back school after March break. She missed learning and socializing with her classmates. It was a risk, but Anakha was vaccinated, and, at that time, most health and safety measures remained in schools, including masks.
When the province lifted the mask mandate and stripped away other safety measures, it altered the family’s plans. Anakha is still learning online.
“I feel very bitter, very, very bitter because of the decision that they made,” Mr. Sharma said. “It means her quality of life was diminished further. She could have had her friends back. She could have her life back.”
“They’ve simply been cut adrift,” he said of children like Anakha.
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