Karey Mayers, of Calgary, beats a drum at a Red Deer protest against educational cuts. Many parents fear they could hit disabled students the hardest. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

Protesters decry funding cuts to Alberta schools and lack of re-entry planning — especially for students with diverse needs

About 90 people from across the province protested in Red Deer

Protesters from across Alberta gathered in Red Deer on Tuesday to decry provincial funding cuts to education that they say were made at the expense of students with disabilities.

Carrying signs stating “Fund my classroom not the war room” and “All students should have barrier-free education,” nearly 100 people waved to honking vehicles that were driving past Education Minister Adriana LaGrange’s Red Deer constituency office.

Vicky Curle said she came to the demonstration because “I’m scared to death” for the students’ safety.

Like many parents, Curle wanted the Alberta government to follow Denmark’s example and create smaller classes for students to return to during this time of COVID-19.

Instead, Premier Jason Kenney seems committed to cutting funding to schools to bring down the deficit, added Curle. “Some things need to take a backseat when there’s a pandemic…”

Shantel Sherwood, of the non-profit advocacy group Hold My Hand Alberta, is disturbed LaGrange has not yet released individual plans for students with diverse needs returning to school.

LaGrange did not come out to meet the protesters. A constituency employee said she was not at her Red Deer office on Tuesday.

While the decision of whether special needs students should return into the classroom is being left up to parents, Sherwood said it’s no real choice at all for single parents or families that depend on two incomes.

Sherwood’s two sons, ages three and five, have a wide range of disabilities, including autism, anxiety and obsessive compulsive and sensory disorders.

She’s still considering whether it’s safe to send her three-year-old into a pre-kindergarten class with a large number of other kids and limited resources during a pandemic — or keep him at home and risk delaying a child who already has trouble socializing.

“A big part of school is learning to handle things,” said Sherwood, who would have liked smaller classes for children with learning or developmental issues.

Because parents are still waiting for a returning-to-school plan for “complex kids,” Sherwood added, “we don’t have the info to decide if it’s safe or not for a diabetic child…”

Savannah Bergesen, of Red Deer, believes it’s too much to expect students who are on a spectrum of disorders to wear masks for much of the day. “Some of these kids have high sensitivity. Masks can trigger them.”

While most students with disabilities depend on educational assistants in the classroom, many EAs were laid off when the pandemic started last spring and have not yet been hired back — including Bergesen.

She believes many kids “are already three months behind” because they didn’t make much progress while studying at home last spring. “It’s super important that they get the help they need. You can’t expect one (teacher) to deal with the needs of 30 kids. It’s just not possible.”

Sandy Duckett of Red Deer said her son with disabilities, who is now 21, depended on resources from the Program Unit Funding while he was in school with such things as physio and speech therapy. But funding for this program was recently cut back by government.

“I am concerned about what’s happening to public education. It’s time to stand up and tell the government we don’t like what it’s doing,” Duckett added.

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