Cuts in EA Staff Affecting Students

The Owen Sound Sun Times
Oct 7 2015

Hanover resident Aaron Vessie and his two sons have had a stressful start to the school year.

The boys — Owen, 11, and Nolan, 6 — who are on the autism spectrum attended school in Sutton, Ont., last year while living with their mother.

Vessie knew they would be transferring to a Bluewater District School Board school after they moved in with him this summer.

He attempted to register them at Hanover Heights but said he was told there were no available educational assistants to help the boys “because they had 12 new students with special needs.”

He was told he would need to enrol them in Walkerton.

That is where the program that “would be best able to serve the needs of the family is located,” said superintendent of education Alana Murray.

“We did accomodate them. The issue was that they are new students to our district. We had limited information . . . As we gathered information it became clear that the best programming would be in Walkerton and those students were admitted to Walkerton,” said Murray.

Without provincial funding for them, the Bluewater board cut 49 educational assistants this school year.

Vessie drove his boys back and forth until the last week of September. They recently began attending Holy Family school in Hanover.

He credits the administration at Hanover Heights for resolving the issue, saying they reached out to the Catholic board, which contacted him.

Vessie said Owen and Nolan are adjusting, but the transitions did affect them.

“They were getting settled in Walkerton, they didn’t want to leave because they were making friends,” he said.

Being responsible for the twice daily drive wasn’t without sacrifice for Vessie either.

“I had just finished trade school and was offered a job. I had to turn it down,” he said.

The mother of a six-year old with ADHD and social anxiety has also had a rocky start to the year.

The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, said her son got an EA in the middle of last year and she was told “the board would be able to continue that support this September despite talk of it being suspended.”

Her son had trouble returning to school this year and she met with administrators three weeks ago and was told “he would need to be kept home for the half of the day that he did not have an EA.”

She was told on a Friday at 4 p.m. she had “two days over the weekend to arrange this, so I had to take time off work. By the following Wednesday they had found a full time EA, so he was allowed back to school, though not into the classroom.”

Adding to her worries is that she knows the number of EAs in the school is set and she assumes her son gained time with an EA who “was taken from someone else.” She said she was also told the arrangement is temporary, until Oct. 16, “at which point I have no idea what will happen.”

“We had an influx of students from other jurisdictions. We have had to re-assess, some were not originally in the tally. We may have deferred entry while we are gathering information and making a safety plan or a plan of support,” Murray said.

“I didn’t have any extra staffing to allocate . . . we’ve had to shuffle staff around and, in some cases, add in emergency staffing because we weren’t anticipating those students in our system.”

The Bluewater board, Murray said, provides extra educational support “for almost 4,000 students . . . which is one in four. Almost 1,200 of those students are ones with intensive needs and EAs are only placed for the 1,200.

“There’s another 2,800 that are not in the medical or safety/supervision category so we don’t fund.”

“As our funding decreases . . . we have to be as efficient as possible with our staffing. Where we’re starting is with the scheduling of EAs, that every minute of time that we have available for them is for the purposes intended.”

Both families contacted Grey- Bruce-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker with their concerns.

Walker believes there are going to a “magnitude” of ripple effects from the loss of the EA positions.

“The whole classroom, the teacher, everyone is affected. Stress levels are going to go up. The teacher frankly doesn’t have the time to spend anymore with the kids.

“And this is when I have parents contacting my office saying who is monitoring my child? What’s going to happen to them?

“There is increased stress, so now maybe that mom, that dad, they utilize the health care system more — they need support from somewhere. It’s a never-ending downward spin,” he said.

Walker says he can understand the board has been put in “a very awkward position. But I don’t believe there are less children the day after they make these announcements.

“You can change criteria all you want but there is still a face and a body and a need standing in front of you in the classroom,” he said.

Walker took his concerns to Queen’s Park and on Sept. 23 asked Education Minister Liz Sandals about them.

He said she replied by saying that overall “there was 68 per cent more funding to education since 2002- 03.”

(c) 2015 Postmedia Network Inc. All rights reserved.