The familiar voices of educational assistants cheered students on earlier this month as they made grilled cheese sandwiches and took bites of their gooey snacks together via livestream.
It was a typical weekday lesson for Life Skills students adjusting to days away from school because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Support staff at Vincent Massey Collegiate have long been working with the Life Skills class, which comprises students with varying cognitive and physical abilities, to expand their palates.
Although support went digital when the province closed schools, parents say EAs have become one of few constants in students’ lives as they grapple with new routines.
Now that hundreds of support workers have been laid off, they question what the impact will be on their children.
Barbro Dick Steadman said the transition to distance-learning in her home consisted of tears and resistance because her 17-year-old daughter didn’t understand why her school and home life were suddenly intertwined. The EAs, she added, have connected the two.
"These kids succeed because they develop trust with the person they work with. They need predictability and they need continuity," said Dick Steadman, whose daughter Olivia Steadman works with EAs on hot lunch goals because she has difficulty processing smells associated with food.
Upwards of 2,200 employees in Winnipeg area school divisions have lost their jobs because of COVID-19 and the subsequent shifting learning environments, as well as cost-cutting directives issued by the province. Custodians, bus drivers and support staff have been laid off.
In the Pembina Trails School Division, where Vincent Massey Collegiate is situated, more than 500 staffers have been affected — the overwhelming majority of which are EAs, who are typically on contract when students are in class between September and June. Their temporary terminations went into effect Monday.
Rafeya Hartung, acting president of the Educational Assistants of Pembina Trails, wrote in an emailed statement that members have been under both financial and emotional stress as a result of the early layoffs and goodbyes to students. In their place, there will be teachers, resource teachers and case managers to assist Life Skills students, Hartung said.
Superintendent Ted Fransen said the division was initially in talks with the EA union about the possibility of keeping a small number of staffers on but such an arrangement wasn’t feasible given the contract in place.
"The union was as interested as we are in maintaining as normal a relationship as possible, but it just didn’t work out," he said, adding that contracts can take months, if not years to negotiate. "There is no playbook for this pandemic."
Fransen said teachers will undertake a transition plan to support students with all needs until the end of June.
“There’s going to be some lost learning. When we come back in September... I don’t know where we’re going to stand.” – Cathy Cowen, whose son, Daniel, has benefitted from work with an educational assistant
"It’s frustrating for all of us because the teacher can’t do it all and the reason being is all of our kids are unique and have their own different needs," said Cathy Cowen, whose 20-year-old son, Daniel Cowen, is enrolled in Life Skills.
Since mid-March, EAs involved in the program have organized online yoga sessions, choir practices and individualized activities with students.
"This is the closest thing to a regular kind of day that Daniel has, as far as when he has school time, and to take that away is cruel to me," Cowen said, adding that everything from physio to speech pathology support has been affected.
Life Skills families rely on learning plans, tailored to individual literacy, numeracy and hands-on goals. Cowen said she’s worried that without EA access, Daniel will have a tough time readjusting in autumn as he wraps up his high school career. Dick Steadman said Olivia’s growth and independence will suffer during the break.
"There’s going to be some lost learning," she said. "When we come back in September... I don’t know where we’re going to stand."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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Updated on Monday, May 11, 2020 at 7:20 PM CDT: fixes typo in name