Halton school board ‘gravely concerned’ about Ontario autism program changes
The Halton District School Board (HDSB) says it is “gravely concerned” about changes made to Ontario’s autism program by the provincial government.
In a letter sent to Education Minister Lisa Thompson and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, the school board indicated that a lack of communication about government funding has made it challenging to ensure that these students have the resources they need.
There are almost 600 students who have autism within the Halton School Board, the letter says.
“Without the current government funding, many of these families will be unable to continue therapy at current levels. For example, some students may drop from 25+ hours of therapy per week to two hours per week under the new program. Presumably, students will spend some, if not all, of the rest of this time within publicly funded schools,” the letter reads.
“We fear that the short notice of program change coupled with the lack of an implementation plan from the Ministry (with associated new funding) will not allow for the “safe and supportive classroom” that you have stated you are committed to.
The new Progressive Conservative autism program will provide children under the age of six with a maximum of $20,000 per year in funding. Children between the ages of seven and 18 will be eligible for $5,000 a year. The funding may differ depending on the family’s annual net income.
The changes were made to reduce the waitlist of 23,000 children waiting for funded services, the government said.
The new program is set to be implemented on April 1.
The HDSB said that it already spends $20 million more than is allocated from the ministry “due to the complex and rising needs of students.”
“We are in fact already doing much more with much less. The resulting changes of the new Ontario Autism Program will make this situation absolutely untenable,” the school board says in the letter.
The school board trustees are urging the province in the letter to rethink the timeline of the program and to discuss the changes with school boards.
“You have stated that the Ministry is ‘working with our school boards to make sure our proper supports are in place for the classroom’ and as of February 25th , the staff at the
school board have received no plans, funds or direction from the Ministry,” the letter says. “As a partner in this endeavour, Boards should be involved in this process.”
At a protest in Brampton, parents said they are also worried about what the funding changes will mean for their children.
"As of April 1, there is going to be thousands of autistic children that are going to be taken from their intensive therapy and dumped into the school system, a school system that is underprepared," said parent Tara Stone.
“When they lose their therapy, they tend to regress and lose what they’ve learned,” another parent, Tara Bourgeois, said. “So the money they’ve already put into my son is going to basically be thrown away again.”
“If you get this help when you are young, the cost associated with help later on, it saves money,” Brampton mayor Patrick Brown said while at the protest.
The Premier’s office said that an announcement about the program’s transition will be made in the coming weeks.
With files from CTV News Toronto's Heather Wright