Currently, there are no AODA education standards. However, two AODA standards development committees have drafted recommendations of guidelines that AODA education standards should include. One committee has recommended guidelines for the kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12) education system. In this article, we outline recommendations for accessible online learning during large-scale emergencies.
Accessible Online Learning During Large-Scale Emergencies
The Committee reports that students with disabilities face many new and worsening accessibility barriers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The education system has not been able to respond to this large-scale emergency in ways that meet all the needs of these students. Therefore, the Committee recommends that the Ministry of Education should implement plans and reviews to improve its emergency response. In addition, the Ministry and school boards should ensure that all schools are well-prepared for any future transitions to online learning.
For instance, the Ministry should hire an independent, arms-length digital accessibility consultant to assess various online-learning platforms. The Ministry should then publish a list of the platforms that are most accessible to students, parents, and staff with disabilities. School boards should be allowed to use only the most accessible platforms to host their courses. The consultant should update this list frequently, to note any changes that increase or decrease a platform’s accessibility.
Furthermore, the Ministry should prevent technology barriers in its own digital resources, including online-learning content through TVO and TFO. Similarly, all online information that the Ministry or school boards post should be fully accessible.
Training for Staff and Parents
The Ministry should provide guides and templates that teach all school board staff to post accessible content, such as:
- Accessible digital files instead of, or in addition to, PDF files
- Captions for all audio
- Audio description for all videos
Similarly, the Ministry should provide webinars and templates teaching staff how to make all their lessons and resources available to students remotely. Likewise, school staff should also have training preparing them to help students navigate transitions to and from remote learning during emergencies.
Moreover, parents should also receive training to learn more about how to help their children remotely access supports for:
- Online learning
- Mental health
- Other healthcare usually delivered in the school context
Therefore, the Ministry should provide guidelines for this training. In addition, school boards should also appoint staff to offer support to parents making this transition.
Moreover, the Ministry should make resources available to support students struggling with the conditions of online learning. These students should have access to best practices, strategies, or alternative approaches from:
- School boards
- Organizations that aid people with specific disabilities
Resource Hub Accessibility
Moreover, the Ontario government should update and improve the “central hub of mental health and well-being information”. Many resources to support the mental health of students, staff, and parents should be available, locally and across the province. A current central hub makes it easier for people to access the supports they need, in accessible formats. The government should publicize this hub, as well as directly alerting school boards. Similarly, a hub of resources to support students with disabilities, and staff who work with them, should also be available.
In addition, the Ministry, in partnership with other government departments, should ensure continued access to needed healthcare assessments connected to education. For example, students may need healthcare appointments, through platforms like Telehealth, to diagnose mental health conditions and receive ongoing accommodations. The Ministry should ensure that students can access these appointments remotely but confidentially.
All these arrangements will promote smoother responses to emergencies that require transitions to online learning.