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Canada Ahead of autism program overhaul, Ontario government to survey schools on student supports

Hundreds of parents, therapists and union members gather outside Queen's Park, in Toronto on March 7, 2019, to protest the provincial government's changes to Ontario's autism program.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is asking school districts to estimate the enrolment changes and detail what supports are in place for students with complex needs, as changes to the autism program are expected to bring more high-needs children into classrooms full-time in about three weeks.

This comes as school principals and several school districts have urged Doug Ford’s government to delay changes to the program that will come into effect on April 1, because there are not enough supports in classrooms.

Hundreds of families and autism advocates protested at Queen’s Park on Thursday saying that their children will not be able to access the intensive therapy that they need, whether it be in private or community-based settings.

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In an e-mail sent Thursday to several directors of education, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, deputy minister of education Nancy Naylor wrote that the government will be surveying school boards on children transitioning to school full-time and who may be approaching districts for supports.

“We expect the survey to go to boards this week but recognizing the timing of March break, it will have a return date of later in this month. In the interim, it would be helpful to have a short call with a number of boards to check in on what you estimate new enrolment or augmented supports may be,” Ms. Naylor wrote.

The Progressive Conservative government is changing the autism program so that funds are allocated to families based on the age of their children and household income. The government has said that it was necessary to spread the resources among all families so it could clear the waiting list of 23,000 children.

But in doing so, it will mean that families currently receiving full funding for intensive therapy will only get a fraction of that financial support. Under the current model, many of these children attend school on a modified schedule, whether it’s half-days or a couple of days a week.

School principals have said they are fielding calls and e-mails from anxious parents, asking what supports will be in place now that funding for intensive supports has been cut and they are forced to put their children in school more frequently, even full-time.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson told reporters at Queen’s Park this week that her office is working alongside the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and will share more details shortly on the steps the government is taking. But the timing of Ms. Naylor’s e-mail indicates that it will take a few weeks for the government to have a handle on how many children are affected by the changes.

Several school districts and education unions have expressed concern in recent days about the changes to the program and whether they will have enough staff to manage these students with high needs.

At the same time as the concerns are being raised, Ms. Naylor sent a memo to school districts last week asking them to exercise caution about hiring teachers for the fall, ahead of expected changes to primary class sizes.

Corrie McBain, chair of the York Region District School Board, wrote to Ms. Thompson this week, saying that the changes to the autism program and a hiring freeze present "some obvious and consequential challenges in providing essential services for children about to undertake a significant transition.”

She added: “In light of these difficulties, we are requesting that the government reconsider its implementation plan to ensure that children are not adversely affected by these changes.”

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