Increased use of seclusion spaces in Alberta in the wake of COVID-19 has forced students into distance learning
Alberta’s use of seclusion rooms is on the rise since students returned to the classroom after COVID-19 forced students into distance learning.
Secluded rooms — a special area in a school designed to provide a quiet and monitored space for a student who poses an imminent danger to themselves or others — was banned in Alberta by the NDP government in 2018, but was reopened in 2019 after the NDP came to power UCP government reinstated.
In the 2019/20 school year, the UCP government introduced a Ministerial Order regulating seclusion spaces in October and began data tracking. The data shows that the rooms were used nearly 5,000 times that year.
This number excludes April, May and June 2020 due to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 2021-22 school year, seclusion rooms across Alberta were used 6,059 times.
In the first four months of the current school year, retreat rooms were used 2,699 times.
The data was obtained through a freedom of information request to the province.
“The ultimate goal is to eliminate the use of seclusion rooms…if I look at the trend from 2019 to now, it looks like we’re back to pre-pandemic rates,” said Alison McInnes, professor emeritus of special education at the University of Alberta.
The data includes public, segregated, francophone, charter and private schools, as well as operators of private early childhood institutions.
The number of isolation rooms and the number of students locked in them have also increased.
In September 2020, 102 students were in seclusion rooms. That number more than doubled to 238 by December 2022.
Number of students in seclusion rooms
During the same period, the number of seclusion rooms in Alberta schools increased from 213 to 238.
Cases of isolation room use reported to the government have nearly doubled from 305 to 609.
According to the standards set by Ministerial Order, seclusion rooms and physical restraints should only be used when a student’s behavior presents an imminent risk of serious physical harm to the child or another person. They cannot be used as a form of punishment or behavior control.
“There is no evidence that the use of seclusion spaces is effective in the short or long term to change behaviors of concern and should not be used as a behavioral intervention,” McInnes said.
McInnes said for spaces to be effective, seclusion rooms must completely change shape, providing coping resources and having an unlocked door for the child to come out on their own.
“Children can be offered the opportunity to go to a calming place in the school, be it a room or just outside the classroom door. They can then calm down, re-regulate, and then return to the classroom. It’s a very different situation than being forcibly placed in an isolation environment with locked doors,” McInnes explained.
The rooms are all too familiar to 13-year-old Carter Naas, who attended a Parkland School Division elementary school.
“It was a small room that wasn’t being used, it had a desk and a table in it, and they kept the door closed when I tried to come out,” Naas explained.
Naas has ADHD, autism, and a disruptive mood dysregulation disorder that exacerbates his experiences in space, he said.
“I started getting upset and rocking in my chair and then they would yell at me to make me freak out. They would make everyone leave the classroom before dragging me out so no one would see,” he said.
Carter, now in the 8th grade, attends a special education two mornings a week and the rest of the time he chooses to home school because he is afraid of being held and locked in a room, he said.
Naas’ mother, Elizabeth Naas, said the frequency and approach with which her son was placed in isolation rooms left a lasting impact.
“His mood started to deteriorate. He was extremely wild, bargaining, depressed and very evasive when asking questions,” she said.
Number of seclusion rooms in Alberta schools
The Parkland School Division told CBC News in an emailed statement that it has eight seclusion rooms, as most were converted to “de-escalation or calming rooms” when the ministerial order was introduced in 2019.
“This can be any space that can be locked or kept closed to prevent a student from harming themselves or others,” the statement said.
Parkland School Division spokesman Jordi Weidman added: “It is virtually impossible to quantify the number of de-escalation rooms as any room can (and will) be used as a de-escalation room.
McInnes said Naas was a prime example of a higher needs student who required coping mechanisms instead of seclusion rooms as punishment.
“When children are at high levels of stress, they can’t easily communicate about what’s going on, especially those with neurodevelopmental disorders or intellectual disabilities, which can also accompany anxiety,” she said.
Although they have good verbal skills when they’re calm and collected, those skills may not be as well developed as their peers and can break down when stressed or provoked, McInnes explained.
“I obviously wish there weren’t seclusion rooms, but that seems to be a factor in our school system,” McInnes said.
In an emailed statement from Education Secretary spokeswoman Emily Peckham, she said school boards are required to follow provincial standards and guidelines regarding all types of time off, seclusion and/or physical restraint.
Cases of use of seclusion rooms