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Claudine Santos, president of the Ontario Parents of Visually Impaired Children, and her son Willam outside a school in Ottawa, on Sept. 19 2020.Kamara Morozuk / Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Special-education teachers at several Ontario boards are learning that they are expected to teach in-class and online at the same time despite the unique challenges faced by their elementary-age students with autism and other learning disabilities.

Many boards have different teachers who provide instruction to students learning online and to those in the classroom. But a handful of boards, including the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and Peel District School Board, are requiring teachers in self-contained classrooms to also teach those children whose families have opted for online learning.

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 teaching assistants.

Gail Bannister-Clarke, president of the Peel Elementary Teachers' Local, said even though there are other adults in the room, the teacher is responsible for the curriculum and also the safety of students in the classroom, who are considered high-needs. She said that teachers in these classrooms deliver highly specialized and differentiated instruction.

“I have no idea how that’s going to work, how that’s going to happen. It’s a huge issue," Ms. Bannister-Clarke said of educators trying to meet the needs of students in-class and online at the same time.

She added that the provincial government is responsible for not providing enough resources to school boards so that special-needs students receive a similar education to their mainstream peers. “It is a cost-saving measure,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce did not directly address the fact that these special-education teachers have to teach online and in-class, and instead said the government has provided funding to school boards to support the reopening of schools.

“School boards have developed plans that best suit their local needs," Caitlin Clark said in an e-mail statement. “We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect the health and safety of Ontario’s students and education staff.”

Claudine Santos, an Ottawa mom of a 7-year-old blind son and also president of the Ontario Parents of Visually Impaired Children, said she has spoken with a number of families and special-needs teachers, who are concerned about the type of education children will receive.

“I’m hearing that they don’t feel their children are well supported. They feel that their children are not getting the same level of education that mainstream children are getting,” Ms. Santos said.

She added that she worries that schools are putting teachers “in a position where they cannot be there for their online students, or they have to neglect their in-class students.”

However, Ryan Reyes, a spokesman for the Peel board, west of Toronto, said keeping the online learners with their regular teachers and teaching assistants, along with their classmates, made the most sense in supporting them.

“Attempting to create disparate online special-education classes across our online system would result in a disjointed program for our most-vulnerable students.” Mr. Reyes said. He added that while it would be a new experience, the board would provide supports, including technology and additional staffing.

In many cases, it is only one or two students from these self-contained classrooms that have opted for virtual learning.

Liana Thompson, a superintendent of education responsible for special education at Grand Erie District School Board in Brantford, which has close to 70 self-contained classrooms, said having teachers provide instruction to both online and in-class learners allows children to have consistency.

“We also recognize that families may opt back into in-class instruction during the … school year. This model allows for a seamless transition for our students when they return to school,” she said.

Peter Symmonds, superintendent of learning support services for the Ottawa-Carleton school board, said that cost was not the primary reason behind having these educators teach both online and in-classroom. Rather, it kept special-education teams intact, and it benefitted students to have that consistency. The board has about 150 self-contained classrooms in elementary schools, and, in most cases, it would be one to three remote learners.

“We felt that model gave a lot of flexibility and stability to the system at a time of dealing with a pandemic,” Mr. Symmonds said.

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