Classrooms will soon be busy as children across B.C. go back to school, again with pandemic procedures in place. (Black Press Media files)

Back to school: Children with special needs are being put in harm’s way, says Autism BC

‘How can my child on the spectrum be safe if the protocols are not in place,’ asks worried parent

The start of a new school year has an autism advocacy organization worried about the well-being of children with special needs.

A spokesperson for Autism BC says the provincial plan to re-open schools next week under another cloud of COVID concern doesn’t take those children’s needs into consideration.

“How can my child on the spectrum be safe if the protocols are not in place,” said Kaye Banez, vice-president of Autism BC, and the parent of a child on the autism spectrum.

When the pandemic impacted the 2020 school year, the province financially supported remote learning at public schools, but it cut that option this year.

That means some parents with special-needs children are opting to take their kids out of the system, abandoning their spots in their neighbourhood school.

Banez, whose organization represents 3,802 families with children with autism, calls it a “huge setback: because for years, advocates have been trying to have the children included in the school system.

“Now the government is saying if you can’t take the heat, get out.”

Banez said many children on the spectrum also have other conditions that make them immunocompromised and more susceptible to becoming sick from Covid-19.

“In B.C., masks are not mandated for children in grades K-3 and teachers and support staff are not required to get vaccinated. These classrooms often have poor ventilation systems. We will have poorly ventilated classrooms with some children not wearing masks, and children unable to keep a safe distance, plus unvaccinated support staff who work closely with our kids on the spectrum.”

Banez also is critical of the education minister for not being publicly available the week before schools reopen — “the most important week.

Black Press Media reached out to the education minister for reaction but did not immediately hear back.

Tara Jensen, a B.C.-based parent and mental-health advocate, calls the situation “troubling.”

The mom of a 10-year-old daughter with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), Jensen said Autism BC’s concerns are valid.

“It puts a lot of us in a catch-22,” she said, because depending on the school district, there can be little or no provincial funding for home schooling.

Returning to school can be an anxious time for any young student at the best of times, and that anxiety can be heightened heading back next week after having been isolated due to virtual learning last year.

Jensen has some advice for parents of children on the spectrum.

“The biggest thing they can do is validate their child’s feelings.”

Another way to try to address a child’s back-to-school anxiety is to practise school-year routines, with earlier bedtimes in the days leading to the first day of school, so there’s not a shift in their routine.

Jensen said another method to ease their child’s concerns is for parents to discuss potential situations where their child is worried about not having their friends in their class or feeling uncomfortable with a new teacher.

She adds parents should read any information they can about child anxiety because “by educating yourself, it gives you the ability to educate your child.”

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BC politicsCOVID-19EducationParenting

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