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York Region school board switches to hybrid learning for special-education students

Switch comes as more families opt for more online learning
Jan. 13, 2021
Dina Al-Shibeeb

Prior to Ontario switching to online education temporarily starting in the new year, the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) decided that students enrolled at community classes and their teachers would go hybrid starting Jan. 4.

Hybrid means that teachers begin educating their students face-to-face and virtually, simultaneously.

Students who need further support not found in mainstream classrooms are enrolled in community classes. They are either capped at six students for Autism Spectrum Disorder community classes or 10 students for Developmental Disability community classes with 2 Education Assistants (EAs) for extra support such as feeding, toileting, behaviour, or program implementation.

However, “a very small number with extreme significant special-education needs,” will still continue with their in-class learning, co-ordinating superintendent of student services Kate Diakiw said.

“The minister has said even during this closure (that) we are to offer in-person learning for those select students whose needs cannot be accommodated online,” she added.

The co-ordinator explained that “everybody's motivation is doing the right thing for kids,” adding YRDSB didn’t choose this option because it’s the “cheapest,” “fastest” or “easiest.”

The main reason behind this decision is the ever-changing tectonic plate of parents opting to have their children go fully online.

“By Oct. 6, we had several thousand (parents) changing their mind and wanted to move from in-person learning to online learning,” Diakiw said. “And the class sizes in our virtual school were getting too large.”

With YRDSB not wanting to “disrupt” and “move our most vulnerable learners and learners with such unique needs,” the idea of collapsing online and in-class together was born.

“We didn't we didn't want to entertain the notion of closing a program in a school, and forcing the three kids who chose in-person learning to move to another school,” she added after citing an example of a class for students with autism “that normally has six kids in it, but three were in virtual school. We can't close that class because there's still three kids in it.”

Most importantly, YRDSB wants to keep special-education students in a “familiar” setting, alongside peers they’ve already known.

“We wanted to keep as much as possible as normal, predictable and familiar as possible.”

When asked if this approach was taken due to funding, Diakiw said, “I'm never going to say we don't need any more money,” however, from a financial perspective, “having a class with two students in it is a very high operating cost.”

Instead of moving all of the students online, YRDSB didn’t want to move students physical to another location.

“We don't want to close their class and bus them to another location. We didn't think that was fair to the kids or the families.”

For its 2020-21 budget, YRDSB needs more than the two per cent allowed by the ministry from its reserves.

The cap translates into $27 million, and overall, YRDSB requires $33.6 million. YRDSB is still waiting for approval from the ministry to exceed the cap.

And in case of behavioural escalation and if online poses a violation to the students and their parents, Diakiw explained that’s already a “concern in all of the three models.”

“So it's a concern face-to-face, it's a pre-COVID-19 concern, and it's a concern when you've got six kids learning in a virtual community class, and it's a concern in the hybrid model.”

To YRDSB’s defence, Diakiw said, “We’ve also given extensive guidelines around you know, the first thing you're going to do is turn off the camera and turn off the sound.

“There's always going to be an adult with the computer with the student who's learning online. So, as soon as there's an escalation, close the lid, and it'll cut the video feed and the audio feed. It takes less than a second.”