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Amid outcry from parents, Nova Scotia confident in school plan to help kids with autism

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Nova Scotia’s education minister says schools across the province are ready to help children with autism who couldn’t complete an intensive therapy program and legally must start school this fall because of their age.

Zach Churchill’s comments come after parents voiced growing concerns they were being left in the dark.

Some parents are calling on the minister to grant them an exemption, and let their children finish the early intensive behavioural intervention program (EIBI), which is supposed to help children develop social and communication skills for school.

But when asked Thursday, the minister indicated that’s not in the cards.

“I believe the literature states the therapy is best for preschool-age children,” he said.

“We are dealing with a cohort of kids that are no longer of preschool age, that are school age and will be moving into school and so we just have to do our very best to support them in that transition.”

Alexander Henneberry was nearing the final phase of his therapy for autism when the EIBI program shut down. His family is hoping his school will be able to continue the work. (Submitted by Ashley Henneberry)

EIBI’s hands-on sessions were stopped for months because of COVID-19. As a result, 70 children had partial therapy, while another 30 had none at all.

Churchill said they bulked up on their resources in schools and partnered with Autism Nova Scotia.

“There’s been $45 million, including what’s in the system this year, for inclusive education support,” he said, pointing to a number of specialists who have been hired to work in the schools, including speech language pathologists and autism specialists.

“These folks are there to support our students, our teachers, and helping them transition into the school environment.”

Earlier in July, a spokesperson for EIBI said even if an exemption was granted, they couldn’t continue working with this group of children because there are 300 more waiting to start.

Health Minister Randy Delorey says his department started working on improvements to EIBI before the pandemic hit Nova Scotia. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

About 3,600 people have signed an online petition, led by parent Kyle Gracie, calling for more money to support the program. Autism Nova Scotia said Wednesday it was supporting the parents and agreed with the push for more funding.

The petition was sent to Health Minister Randy Delorey and the premier earlier in the week. On Thursday, Delorey said he had not seen it, but his staff might be aware of it.

‘Path forward has not been charted,’ says health minister

He said the EIBI problems were on his radar before they were exacerbated by COVID-19.

“I did have staff working to identify recommendations,” he said. “That path forward has not been charted just yet.”

While parents maintain they still don’t know what is happening in September, Churchill said he’s confident with the plan in place.

“We work with parents to identify needs of those students and develop a transition plan to get them into school and help them do their very best.”

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Ontario’s largest school board commits to shrinking elementary class sizes in areas hit hardest by COVID-19

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A Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee says the province’s largest school board will prioritize shrinking elementary class sizes in neighbourhoods hit hardest by COVID-19.

On Friday Education Minister Stephen Lecce pointed to a number of new investments and policies for school boards announced by the province — among them, $30 million to hire more staff to decrease elementary class sizes whenever possible.

TDSB trustee Parthi Kandavel said the board will be submitting an application for that funding; and while he’s not sure if the funds will be distributed by population or by need, they’re asking for as much as possible to be given to the Toronto District School Board.

“[Toronto] is disproportionately hit, and certain neighbourhoods … are hit the hardest,” Kandavel, who represents Ward 18, Scarborough Southwest, told CBC News.  

“We need to address that to ensure the safety of our teachers and of course our students and families.

“The bulk of what we’re counting on for the strategy of reducing class sizes in hardest-hit neighbourhoods, will come down to that provincial fund that’s been set up,” Kandavel added.

In Ontario, there are no cap sizes for classes in Grades 4 through 8, only a maximum average of 24.5 across each board. That means it’s not uncommon for children in high enrolment school boards to find themselves in classes of 30 or more students.

Just over a week ago, Toronto Public Health released startling data showing that Black people or other people of colour made up 83 per cent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city outside of long-term care homes. Previously, the city identified neighbourhoods that have been hit hardest by the novel coronavirus.

In the aftermath, city leaders have called for short-term improvements — like more targeted testing and public awareness campaigns — to better help those most at risk.

However it’s unclear how the data is guiding Ontario’s back-to-school plan.

“I’m hopeful [Lecce will] understand that there’s such an intersection between geography and race, and who lives in these neighbourhoods; and this will hopefully inform their decision to fund Toronto appropriately to [address] these hardest-hit neighbourhoods,” Kandavel said.

We are going to place those teachers in those hot spots to reduce class sizes.– Parthi Kandavel -TDSB trustee

Kandavel pointed to Woburn — the eighth most-hit neighbourhood in Toronto — that he said would be given priority in the placement of extra teachers.

He also highlighted other areas “like the Jane and Keele corridor, and in the northwest, there’s Rexdale.” 

Many of these harder-hit neighbourhoods are home to higher proportions of crowded multi-unit residences and essential front-line workers. 

“The plan is — granted we are given the additional funding from the province, which I suspect will happen — we are going to place those teachers in those hot spots to reduce class sizes,” Kandavel said.

Anusha Kumarasan, whose five-year-old son, Joshua, is going into senior kindergarten — lives in the Woburn area.

She agrees that funding and resources should go to hardest-hit neighbourhoods first. But even if classes are downsized, she is worried about sending her kid to school.

“I’m very nervous about it. I’m leaning more towards online learning than actually sending him because he’s so young,” Kumarasan told CBC News.

“What is he going to know about sanitizing and all that? So I’m very nervous about it. Even if the class was, let’s say 15 students, it will still be nerve-wracking because we don’t know where the kids have been.”

“They’re coming into a classroom and playing together, passing things to each other. It comes down to those little things. I really don’t want to send him back,” Kumarasan added.

Anusha Kumarasan, whose five-year-old son is going into Senior Kindergarten, says even if classes are downsized, she is nervous about sending her kid to school. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

Ryan Bird, a TDSB spokesperson, confirmed the board is looking for solutions.

“We’re aware of this issue and are discussing what may be possible with the Ministry of Education,” he said in an email statement.

Last Friday, Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce defended the province’s plan but did not give a direct answer when asked if they would spend more to lower class sizes.

“We have to be adaptable,” Ford told reporters. “We have to be flexible — we have been flexible.”

Kandavel said the province is expected to reveal next week how it will be allocating the $30 million funding.

“This is going to be one of those big tests for us and for the public — that we’re meeting the needs of those hardest hit.”

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Old Navy and IFR Workwear awarded $4.2M contract to make masks for Alberta students

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Alberta has placed two orders for 1.7 million masks for students as they return to in-person classes this fall.

The contracts, valued at a total of $4.2 million, were placed with Old Navy and IFR Workwear.

Old Navy is a clothing company owned by U.S. multinational The Gap. It brought in $4 billion in revenue last year. IFR, according to the company’s catalogue, is a family-owned business founded in 2005, and two of the founders are Métis. The company is based in north Red Deer, which is Education Minister Adriana LaGrange’s riding.

LaGrange said in an emailed release on Saturday that “some have recently questioned the ability” of the provincial government to purchase the needed number of masks in time for the start of K-12 classes this September.

LaGrange said when a decision on how students would return to class was announced on July 21, a decision on masks was still pending, so Alberta Education and the Provincial Operations Centre began preparing in case masks were made mandatory.

On Tuesday, LaGrange and Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced that all Alberta school staff and students from Grade 4 to 12 will be required to wear masks — and that all staff and students will be given two reusable masks from the government.

“Given the expediency required, the [Provincial Operations Centre] has directly approached experienced, established vendors to fulfil personal protective equipment (PPE) needs for school reopenings,” LaGrange said. 

“Government of Alberta contracting policies allow for this expedited process in urgent situations, as a standard request for proposal tendering process would not allow the government to fulfil our schools’ needs in the timely manner required.”

LaGrange said the province appreciates the eagerness of local businesses that have offered to help with the effort, but that often those businesses manufactured non-PPE products before the pandemic and/or have limited production capacity.

Timothy Gerwing, a spokesperson for the minister of municipal affairs, which the Provincial Operations Centre falls under, said companies had to meet both quality requirements and the demands of filling such a large order in a manner of weeks. 

“The primary goal is getting the masks into the hands of Alberta families for the resumption of classes,” he said in an emailed statement. 

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Meet the U.S. park ranger who welcomes Canadians at a unique open section of the border

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Even though the Canadian side of the border-straddling Peace Arch park was closed in June, people have continued flocking to the American portion of the park.

The self-described lone ranger who oversees the American side of the park greets them all.

Rickey Blank, 68, has no problem with Canadians hopping over a shallow ditch by 0 Avenue in Surrey, B.C., to mingle, picnic and often embrace Americans, then head home — even though the international border has been closed to non-essential traffic since March 21 due to COVID-19.

In the first few months of the pandemic, the unusual park that straddles two countries at the B.C.-Washington state border became an oasis of human connection in a time of profound isolation. 

It was the only spot on the border where people could wander in and out from either side, offering a loophole for couples and family members cut off from each other when the border was closed.

Peace Arch Provincial Park — the park’s Canadian side — was closed on June 18 due to concerns about overcrowding. But that hasn’t deterred many Canadians from crossing over into Peace Arch Historical State Park — the park’s U.S. side — by using 0 Avenue, the nearby road that runs parallel to the border.

But that’s led to concerns among some about a porous border, given the rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in the U.S.

‘A special spot’

In his almost 50 years as a U.S. park ranger, Blank has never seen a summer like 2020.

In the parking lot on the U.S. side — where the site is called the Peace Arch Historical State Park — there are licence plates from almost every state.

“I would have never imagined anything like this ever happening. Our borders are closed and people from America and Canada are just unable to share time together. This is a special spot, right now in this time, for folks to go ahead and meet,” Blank said.

Ranger Rick Blank snaps a photo for a group touring the park on Aug. 5. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

On patrol, he says he sees people seeking a bit of normalcy. He’s watched a woman meet her granddaughter for the first time, a mother and daughter reunite after 50 years and three marriage proposals — and that was just last Saturday.

Canadians have walked freely into the American park for 99 years and COVID-19 has not seen it fenced — so far.

“The park has been looked at to close but I was never worried. I just knew this would be treasured, and especially after the provincial park had to close — this is now more treasured,” said Blank, who is expecting up to 250,000 extra visitors this year.

Blank took over as park manager about a year-and-a-half ago. He’s in charge of 20 acres of grass, 21 flower beds and the white Peace Arch monument owned by Washington State Parks. The 20-metre-high structure was built to honour the War of 1812 treaties that ensure a peaceful border.

Ranger Rick Blank patrolling the Peace Arch Historical State Park on Aug. 5. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

‘Now is not the time’

But some park neighbours do not like the new crowds. They fear nefarious things are happening there, like people crossing into Canada and not returning. Some fear COVID-19 could also be transmitted. Visitors to the U.S. side of the park can walk in and out with no controls or quarantine provisions.

Surrey resident John Kageorge, 20, lives across from the park and wants it kept empty and safety rules followed.

“I know there’s this pent-up cabin fever. People have just got to get across. But now is not the time,” he said.

Surrey RCMP Cpl. Daniel Michaud says police have surveillance on the park and know people are circumventing quarantine rules.

But officers are focusing on education and erring on the side of compassion, he says.

As for asylum seekers, B.C. has seen 39 since January and only a few were near Peace Arch Provincial Park, Michaud says.

Sera Acacia under the park’s sequoia tree on Aug. 5. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Ask Blank if he’s concerned about criminals and he appears more concerned about the health of the park’s sequoia.

Sitting under the tree is Sera Acacia, an American waiting to meet a romantic interest who he’s not seen since February.

“I had difficulty sleeping last night because I’m very excited to see them,” Acacia says.

Blank greets Acacia and moves on. He knows that the odd stuffed toy or gift has made it over the border through this park, but he shrugs. He said his job is to mow the lawns and tell visitors to split into clusters of five, stay six feet apart and wear masks in the washroom.

Peace Arch Provincial Park — the Canadian side of the border-straddling park — was closed because of overcrowding concerns on June 18. (Yvette Brend/CBC News)

He is confident that activities in the park are caught on camera, and few crimes pierce this peaceful bubble.

“If I saw something overt I’d have to take action, but I have not seen that. I just think it would be foolhardy to do something like that. Has it happened? Probably, yes. I don’t know,” said Blank.

He apologizes that the Peace Arch monument is under wraps, as it gets refurbished for its upcoming 100th anniversary in 2021.

Blank strides along, speaking of his daughters, two of whom live in Vancouver.

“I think it’s pretty special that we’ve had a border that hasn’t been fenced — and we are so intermingled and intertwined,” said Blank.

“I love the people that are here.”

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