NSW back-to-school testing requirements difficult for students with sensory issues

Submitted by bobb on Thu, 27/1/2022 - 22:21
family of 3 wearing covid masks

The mother of a 10-year-old with special needs says the NSW government's back-to-school plan announced this week will be "impossible" for children like hers.

Key points:

  • NSW's back-to-school plan recommends students take rapid antigen tests twice a week
  • Nasal swabbing and mask wearing is difficult for children with conditions such as autism
  • An advocate says the government's suggestion on how to manage children with a disability was "completely inappropriate"

Joanne Murtagh from Tuncurry on the mid-north coast said her son Luke, who has level three autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, and ADD will not be able to take rapid antigen tests (RATs).

"There is no way we'll get anything up his nose or in his mouth," she said.

"Doctors can't even do blood pressure checks on him, so no-one will have a chance of doing a swab on him. They can't even look in his mouth to look at his tonsils."

On Monday, NSW Department of Education secretary Georgina Harrison was asked about children with special needs being tested every two days.

"I have got to get a six-year-old used to getting tested. There are some great materials online and we'll be making those available through our schools," Ms Harrison said.

"Our children understand and trust our adults and trust their parents that something is necessary."

Health Minister Brad Hazzard also said children would "learn very quickly to accommodate having the rapid antigen tests".

"Quietly and calmly … make sure they understand that this is a very simple process. It's not going to have any negative effect on them," Mr Hazzard said.

Warning of a crisis ahead

Autism Awareness Australia chief executive Nicole Rogerson said the direction to calmly explain the process to children with disabilities was "completely inappropriate".

"I think it's frightening that in NSW both the Health Minister and education [secretary] don't understand disability and autism enough that they would make that response," she said.

A woman in glasses
Nicole Rogerson says a specific public health communication strategy is needed for the autistic community.(ABC News: Josh Bavas)

"It might not be mandatory … but if there's a [COVID] case in a class will it automatically be blamed on the child with a disability who didn't have a test?

"They need to understand that giving a rapid antigen test to a child with autism or developmental delays is difficult enough to do if you can see they've got symptoms.

"But the idea of doing it twice a week to children to who don't understand it, who could be quite traumatised by it, it's just not going to happen."

Ms Rogerson said she understood the back-to-school plan had to be put together quickly, but it was not an excuse to remain silent on how exemptions for children with disabilities would work.

"All of it is a potential crisis that's going to kick off next week," she said.

Parents angry, frustrated

Although masks for primary school students are only "encouraged" in the guidelines, Ms Murtagh said her family is in a position where they are trying to be as cautious as possible.

Mother and child hugging and smiling for a selfie
Joanne Murtagh says her son Luke struggles with the texture of certain kinds of masks. (Supplied: Joanne Murtagh)

The family has just returned from nine weeks in Sydney where Luke's father underwent a pancreas and kidney transplant.

"We came home and basically lived in isolation to be away from people, so we are stressed enough about [Luke] going back to school," she said.

"Luke won't wear the blue mask, the disposable one, because of the texture, that's a sensory issue.

"He will have a meltdown over it and it's not worth going through a meltdown to put it on. I don't think these factors have been considered.

"Some [families] are even talking about taking the children out of school and homeschooling."

Ms Murtagh said Luke is feeling "very nervous" and "doesn't want to go back to school".

"They think that we're all just mainstream and that we just fit into this black and white model."

from https://amp.abc.net.au/article/100778572