Ontario school boards must now develop policies to accommodate students with service animals in classrooms.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced Monday that boards have until Jan. 1 to come up with their rules, saying only about half of school boards currently have policies on service animals.
"Anything the province can do to create a framework, a provincialized framework, to support children who need service animals is a positive step forward and it's a realization that we can do more to provide that inclusive environment for our children," he said.
The directive to boards says they are expected to allow a student to be accompanied by a service animal when it would support the student's learning needs.
Boards' policies will also have to include a protocol for addressing concerns from other students or staff, such as allergies or fears.
Lecce was joined for the announcement in Kitchener, Ont., by fellow caucus member Amy Fee, who fought for years for her son to be allowed to bring his service dog to school.
Fee's son Kenner has autism and his family says his dog has a significant calming effect on the boy, who is prone to high anxiety and frequent meltdowns.
"For some families they've been struggling for years to try and get their child to be able to attend class with their service animal," she said.
"It can be a child with autism who struggles to regulate their emotions and through the use of their autism service dog is able to attend class, be with their peers and confidently participate in their education. For a child who has a seizure disorder or diabetes, having their service animal with them at school allows them to know if a seizure is coming on or if their blood sugar is dropping."
Fee's family lost a ruling from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which ruled that they failed to prove that having his dog in the classroom would help Kenner with his education. The tribunal found that the Waterloo Catholic District School Board took all necessary steps to evaluate whether the dog was needed in the classroom, and supported the board’s decision not to allow the service animal to sit beside Kenner during lessons.
The new provincewide directive to boards says they are expected to decide service animal requests on a case-by-case basis and enact consistent and transparent processes "that allow for meaningful consideration of requests for service animals to accompany students in school."
The directive defines service animal as one that "provides support relating to a student's disability to assist that student in meaningfully accessing education."
School boards must also decide how they will inform parents about any service animals in class.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press