I’m not telling you anything you don’t know when I remind you that schools in Ontario have been closed longer than any other district in North America during the pandemic.
But I imagine you probably haven’t heard that on January 14 the province also decided to close all residences at all boarding schools and demonstration schools, which include three schools for deaf students, and the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford.
The relative lack of media coverage aside, this news has a devastating impact on the approximately 70% of the school’s students, who travel to W. Ross weekly and stay in residence to attend school from all over. in the province.
The reason for the closure? It is treated as a gathering place and is home to many medically fragile people, who are, in the words of Education Minister Stephen Lecce, “further compromised by disability”.
For the sake of brevity, I’m not even going to get into the frankly ableist, insulting, and misinformed perspective that assumes that disability is itself an automatic threat to the immune system, so let me paint a picture of what This is the student life of W. Ross.
Because it is a school for the blind, its ability to cultivate blindness-specific educational experiences (with all of its limitations and virtues) means that students will essentially have a fully accessible education.
It makes people feel like they’re learning math in Braille appropriately, instead of sitting confused in a classroom with their sighted peers while a teacher writes equations on the board.
Seems like blind people are joining the swim team and learning to play sports, instead of making up all the excuses you can find to escape the painfully humiliating experience of being the blind kid in a swimming class. gym seeing and being afraid of losing an (admittedly dysfunctional) eye as a basketball flies past your head.
It’s like mastering the piano or the violin, or putting on a Broadway-style show with so many of your peers because – remember? — blind people are also disproportionately likely to be musical and have perfect pitch.
It also feels like built-in independent living skills into the residential experience, which current student Megan Myers says is such a distinctive aspect of her educational experience.
“Independent living skills can’t be taught online,” Myers told me. “You can’t show a blind person how to use a stove without being able to see if they’re going to knock over a pot of boiling water. I wish I could be an independent person. I want to be able to cook on my own, rely on myself to cook a meal, do things like that. Especially if I want to go to post-secondary education.
Some of W. Ross graduates have gone on to careers in law, music therapy, advocacy, music education, business, health care, and more. A decorated blind Paralympian was even the flag bearer for last summer’s Paralympic Games.
“Fragile” is not a word I would use to describe any of these people.
Don’t let me mislead you. There are medically fragile people at W. Ross; there are indeed medically fragile people everywhere. Yes, there are indeed students who have lived in residence who have complex medical conditions that could indeed put them at greater risk of contracting a disease.
But is the government seriously suggesting that these schools have no systemic infrastructure to best assess and respond to the needs of all their students? Can’t medically fragile students and their families participate in determining where their students’ needs are best met?
The W. Ross Residences are not a typical gathering setting; they are more like a college dorm and not a nursing home where the ability to care for residents requires close physical proximity.
Myers reports that COVID safety protocols in residence were extensive, with the school actually rotating groups of students into residence every two weeks. This meant that students missed school even more than their publicly educated counterparts.
If residences do not reopen, all options are bleak. Students will be forced to continue online and lose the most valuable elements of their education: meaningful inclusion and preparation to safely navigate the world beyond, which is a big part of why they went to W. Ross first.
The decision to close residences indefinitely is indefensible, based on ableist premises and morbidly immoral. Is the government really ready to give up excellence in blindness education for reasoning that is, at best, flimsy and compromised?