Students with special needs are being asked to stay home and miss school due to a shortage of educational assistants in the Greater Victoria school district, parents say.
The parents say the ongoing practice discriminates against children with disabilities and violates their right to an education.
Cristina Gage said she was called one day last week at 8:30 a.m. and asked to keep her six-year-old son with autism at home because View Royal Elementary was short on educational assistants and had no backups.
“My husband and I both work full time, so it’s not feasible, No. 1, to stay home. And No. 2, he shouldn’t have to stay home. It’s his basic right to be able to go to school and learn how to read and write.”
Gage said she took her son to school anyway. “But I was still uneasy throughout the day, because I don’t want him to feel like he’s ever being shuffled around, or like he’s a problem or a burden for anybody.”
Jen Wark, who has two children with autism at View Royal Elementary, said it’s infuriating that parents of students with special needs are being asked to keep their children at home when those same parents are often told that an educational assistant is there to support the entire classroom, not just their child.
“So why is it when an EA is absent, the entire class isn’t told to stay home?” Wark said. “This is very clear discrimination.”
Greater Victoria school district associate superintendent Colin Roberts said the problem stems, in part, from a 2016 Supreme Court of Canada decision that restored 2002 contract language to B.C. teachers regarding class size and composition.
“It created many additional classrooms requiring many additional teachers, then the increase in the number of classrooms also corresponded with that need to hire a significant number of EAs,” Roberts said. “We’ve been hiring as quickly as we can. It is a struggle for us to keep pace and to find enough qualified people.”
He acknowledged that the situation has an effect on families.
“There are rare occasions where a principal might contact a parent if an EA is unavailable to work with a child whose safety might be impacted if there is no adult available,” he said.
“Or sometimes, on occasion, if a parent hears directly that the EA that normally works with their child is not coming to work, they may decide to keep their son or daughter at home, because even if there is a replacement, that lack of consistency is sometimes difficult for the child to deal with.”
Advocates say the problem exists in districts across B.C. and has been going on for years.
In 2017, the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils surveyed more than 800 parents of students with special needs and nearly half reported that their children were prevented from attending school full time.
“I don’t think it’s getting better and that’s really just because staffing is still an issue,” said Tracy Humphreys, chairwoman and founder of the BCEdAccess Society, which has started tracking incidents of exclusion.
“We have this teacher-shortage crisis. It has improved. But no one’s really even talking about the EA one. It is a really big deal and it needs to be addressed in a serious way.
“From a rights perspective, you wouldn’t ask any other child to stay home. You’re asking these kids to stay home and not have access to their education. They have a legal right to an education like any other child.”
Jane Massy, president of CUPE 947, the union representing educational assistants in Greater Victoria, said the district has trouble recruiting and keeping EAs because they don’t get enough hours and many have to take a second or third job to earn a living.
“What other career are you going to try and get into where you love kids and you want to work with kids and you get 25.23 hours a week?” she said.
In addition, Massy said educational assistants, the majority of whom make about $25 an hour in Greater Victoria, are suffering burnout from trying to support children with special needs in multiple classrooms.
“Our EAs are run ragged, which is probably not helping their situation,” she said. “Some of them are supporting four different classrooms, so it’s like roller skates is what they really need.”