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Parents of complex learners fear changes to online education

However, Sea to Sky school district says students may attend either a local online school or a provincial online learning school
Science at home Squamish3574
Home learner working on a science lesson.
Some local parents are worried that online education programs serving their kids may be altered or taken away from them.

Bill 8, which changes schools' online learning model, is expected to come into effect for the 2022 to 2023 school year.

"The concern is that our [online] schools, just some of them, won't exist anymore and that the options that we're left with won't understand the needs of our kids the way the current schools do," said Jenn Scharf, who is a local education consultant and parent of a student with autism.

The issue was also raised in a letter to the editor in The Squamish Chief this month by Anna Marie Rutishauser, a local parent.

In the letter, Rutishauser said that as of September 2022, online students will be required to attend an online school in their district, unless they enrol in a Provincial Online Learning School, or POLS.

She said that enrolment for online schools is slated for January to February 2022, but parents won't know which online schools will receive the POLS designation until July 2022.

The fear is that online schools that do not receive the POLS designation will be forced to shut, thus leaving those who registered at that school out of luck.

Not all students who choose online learning have learning challenges. However, for parents whose children have cognitive differences, the spectre of losing their current online programs could be catastrophic, as it has been the only way to accommodate their kids' complex needs, Scharf said.

In response to these concerns, the Ministry of Education issued a written statement to The Chief.

"The majority of students take online courses within their own school district and will not be impacted by the shift to this new model," reads the statement.

"We anticipate that all of the students taking courses or programs outside their districts will be served by the provincial online schools, and that no students will lose their services...Online learning schools that do not become provincial providers do not need to close and can still offer services to in-district students."

Squamish's school district also weighed in on the situation.

Nolan Cox, the principal of the Sea to Sky Online School and the district principal of technology, said the Ministry of Education has not suggested the closure of local online schools.

"The British Columbia Distributed Learning Administrators' Association is working with the Ministry of Education on questions around how provincial online schools (POLS), and local online schools, will co-exist. Students will have additional options, given that they can enrol in local online schools and/or enrol in a POLS," said Cox in a written statement to The Chief.

He said that it is untrue that online schools that are not selected to become POLS will be shut. The Sea to Sky Online School will not close.

Nolan added that parents will be able to choose from either a POLS or the local Sea to Sky Online School.

For Scharf, a major concern is that students who don't get into a POLS may then be forced to attend their local school district's online learning services — but not every school district has programming tailored to help children who have complex needs.

Going back to in-person learning is not an option, because that style of learning often does not suit students with complex needs, said Scharf.

It's often a traumatizing experience for these students, she said.

To make the point, Scharf compiled a report, called Stories of Exclusion.

It's a collection of vignettes from around B.C. that showcase the challenges these children face in a traditional school system.

"[My son] was not assisted with co-regulation and repeatedly put in a room that we were told was a 'calm room' and later discovered it was a tiny cement closet with a small window. He became increasingly distressed and would not leave when we dropped him off at school," reads the recollection of a parent in the report.

"He now has PTSD from the psychological mistreatment he experienced at public school. He also has very low self-esteem and self-worth. The school we were at dismissed our concerns about seclusion and refused to make changes that would help him."

The report is filled with a number of stories that highlight similar challenges.

Scharf said that it's challenging and stressful not knowing what the next step will bring.

"I think that [the government is] aware of a lot of these concerns at this point," she said. "There's just still a lot of unknowns about how that's all going to unfold."

The Ministry of Education, however, said that the goal is to provide the best learning experience possible for students, no matter where they live, and to ensure the least possible disruption to a child's education as it modernizes the delivery of online learning programs.

"Many of the changes being proposed are the result of feedback from staff, parents, advocates and other people in the education sector on how to improve the online learning model since 2019 and plan to implement a new model in 2022/23," reads the ministry's statement.

The ministry also added that these changes are still open for public comment.

Parents and families are encouraged to participate in forums being held through October in collaboration with BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC) and Federation of Independent School Associations in British Columbia (FISA BC) to ensure families have input.

The province is also still gathering feedback here.

"Additional information about the number and location of provincial online schools will be available in spring 2022 following provincial consultation and engagement," the province said.

"The ministry is working with stakeholders to develop the process and criteria for the selection of provincial online schools. This process is expected to begin in November of 2021, and information available prior to 2022/23 enrolment dates."