Educators teaching students with special needs are raising concerns about returning to physical classrooms in southern Ontario while schools otherwise remain closed to in-person learning due to COVID-19.

Students in southern Ontario are learning online until at least Jan. 25 and the government extended virtual classes for those in five hot spots until Feb. 11.

Special education students who cannot participate in remote learning, however, were back in physical classrooms on Monday - a move the government said was recommended by experts.

But as COVID-19 cases rise, some special education teachers say they are worried about their safety, as well as the safety of their students, some of whom are immunocompromised.

“For my five- and six-year-old (children), it's not safe for them to go to school, but it's totally safe for my immunocompromised students to go to school?” asked Katie Swallowell, a teacher working for a Catholic school board in London, Ont.

Swallowell, who teaches high school students with special needs, said some of her students may not wear masks or may have mask exemptions.

“Some of them don't wear masks or they take them off because they hate them. Sneezing, coughing, hugging,” she said. “Some of them you can't say no to. You try to say no, but they don't understand and you feel bad.”

Among 16 of her students, only five opted for remote learning, while the remaining 11 resumed in-person classes, said Swallowell.

The teacher said she's worried about bringing the virus home to her three children, including a one-year-old.

“It's either safe or it's not safe,” she said, adding that there have been no added COVID-19 measures at her school since coming back from winter break. “It looks the same as it did in December.”

The education ministry said students with special needs can benefit from the routine and consistency of in-class learning and noted that their return to physical classrooms comes with “strong health and safety measures.”

“We have followed that advice, supported by the chief medical officer of health, to ensure a small number of the most exceptional children can receive the care they desperately need,” said ministry spokeswoman Caitlin Clark.

Laura Kirby-McIntosh, a parent of two children with autism and president of Ontario Autism Coalition, said the government's choice to resume in-person learning for special education students is the right one.

Keeping schools open for those students helps them maintain normalcy and routine during the pandemic, she said.

But more needs to be done to ensure consistency for students and a safe working environment for educators, she said.

A good supply of personal protective equipment, regular asymptomatic testing, temperature checks and access to vaccinations are just some of the things that can help, she said.

Jennifer Windsor, a physical education teacher at Huron Park Secondary School in Woodstock, Ont., said her school board only informed educators about coming back to teach in-person two days before classes resumed.

“We're being told, it's not safe for students. Yet our most vulnerable sector, you're telling us it's safe to return and no changes since we left in December have been made,” she said.

Windsor, also a mother of three, said she had to ask her ageing parents for help with her own kids as she returned to teach at school.

“For me, the potential of exposing my parents - that has a certain burden and stress. I have barely slept since Thursday, I can barely eat,” she said.

The resumption of special needs in-person learning means unrecognized increased risks for many education workers, students and families, the union representing Windsor and other teachers in her school board said.

“(We are) concerned that the Ford government's announcement is a half measure that does not go far enough in protecting student and staff safety during the COVID-19 pandemic,” District 11 of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation said in a statement.

Union district president John Bernans said he can't understand how the government believes it's safe for the group of students and staff to return to in-person learning when it is not safe for any other group.

“This government has had 10 months to put social supports in place for parents of children with special needs that keep students, families and workers safe. They have failed to do that,” said Bernans.