Educational assistants face unique risks, uncertainty as school year begins

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Image: Rubén Rodriguez/Unsplash

Vivian Macleod, a Vancouver educational assistant (EA), was looking forward to returning to her high school life skills class this month. This year, however, she was excited to be seeing one face in particular: a student she had worked with at her last job in an elementary school who is starting Grade 9.

For many students with disabilities, the transition from elementary to high school can be a difficult one. Vivian was happy that this student was going to have her as a familiar face in an otherwise overwhelmingly new environment.

But then, a pandemic happened.

Sixty-three year old Macleod lives with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as asthma. She is at risk for contracting COVID-19, and if she does get it, the consequences could be fatal.

"It's hard. I have to put myself first this time. The kids are [usually] always the priority," said Macleod.

In a life skills class like the one she worked in, many of the students require a great deal of hands-on personal support, including feeding and toileting. Physical distancing would have been impossible for Macleod.

And while she could have been as diligent as possible about wearing personal protective equipment, the students she works with can be unpredictable, especially when they themselves are anxious or stressed. (Christina, an Ontario EA who only agreed to have her first name published for privacy concerns, said she has already had one "special needs" student in her school who refused to put his mask on, and kept telling his EAs he had COVID-19.)

Macleod applied to her board for medical leave, and the board did not inform her of their decision until after school had started, leaving her to think her only option was to use her sick days up before applying for employment insurance.

Finally, they let her know she could take medical leave until the end of October, provided her sick days were used up first. At the end of her medical leave, she may need to apply for medical EI, though she is going to look into long-term disability as an option, too. She has three years until retirement, she said, and isn't keen on going early. 

"It's really quite a whirlwind and you don't know the answer and it gets depressing and my anxiety level rises and I just need to talk to someone," said Macleod. 

Natalie Sadowski, Vancouver School Board spokesperson, said staff are required to work unless they are on leave or have a medical accommodation as per their collective agreements.

In the meantime, Macleod is keeping up with the student she has known since kindergarten from afar. Even while not working, she regularly keeps in touch with her class' teacher, offering her expertise and advice and receiving updates as to how her students are doing.

Ontario School Board Council of Unions president Laura Walton, an EA herself, said there is a place for EAs in the virtual learning structure that's currently being overlooked by most boards.

"I think one of the things we should have learned from the spring, is that when students become frustrated about virtual schooling, they just stop participating, and it's not like a classroom where you can go over and speak with them," said Walton.

She said EAs could be providing key support in those instances, helping students who are overwhelmed and struggling, working with them in small groups in an online environment. That would also open up a way for EAs to more easily be granted medical accommodations or family accommodations by their boards while still working.

The problem, said Walton, is that many are applying, but only some are being granted. She said she's hearing from a number of EAs whose accommodation applications are being denied, and whose only options are sick leave or EI.

"We also are hearing of [situations] where the school board is saying that provided you wear your PPE, you should be able to come to school. So, a lot of people, given their condition, and given the proximity they have to maintain with students, that may not be possible," she said.

EAs in several Ontario school boards said they did not know that they even had the option to apply for medical accommodation, though CUPE, which represents over 18,000 EAs in Ontario, said that every school worker does have that right.

Christina, an EA at the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario, said if she had known she had the option to apply for medical accommodation, she would have done so.

"The [social] bubbles, the distancing, the masks ... it's not working," she said. There is a general feeling of anxiety and unease at her school, she said, especially as COVID-19 rates continue to rise in the province.

The Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario did not respond to questions about accommodations for its EAs.

EAs anticipate an increase in violence

School staff are not alone in feeling anxious about being at school during a pandemic. Students, too, are feeling the weight of this uncertainty. For some students with disabilities and special needs, this anxiety is not eased by seeing their EAs and teachers decked out in PPE, from gowns, to gloves, to face shields and masks.

This heightened level of anxiety and stress among students has EAs concerned about an increase in violent incidents in their classes.

This is something Walton said she is going to be watching for over the coming months.

"[Violence is] something else that [EAs] are at risk of not just during COVID, but everyday, but that could be possibly highlighted due to the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought," she said.

Sara Jane Stewart, an EA with the Ottawa Catholic School Board, said that the first few weeks back at school after having some time away, students' behaviours are generally quite good. She is concerned about what might happen after what she calls this honeymoon period.

"You're in closer proximity. Everybody could be sitting well and everything's going fine, and then a switch flips, and you're not prepared, and maybe you don't have all your PPE on, maybe the students goes at you and it's time to take [the PPE] off you. It's protective but how much can it protect you then?" she said.

Sharlene Hunter, a spokesperson for the Ottawa Catholic School Board, said the board is hiring two new behaviour analysts and four mental health workers to develop support plans and avoid these situations.

However, experiencing violence is unfortunately part of many EAs day-to-day, and is part of the unique risks they face in the workplace, particularly during COVID-19.

Some EAs continue to have to move from classroom to classroom, despite the fact that teachers and students must remain with their designated cohorts. And, short staffing is an issue for many EAs as well.

Macleod said that as of yet, her school has been unable to find a replacement for her. Whenever she has taken sick days in the past, the burden of her absence falls to her colleagues, and vice versa.

In order to reduce EAs movements between classes, and to support rising anxiety levels among students, CUPE is calling for more of them to be hired.

"We have to recognize the higher risk that these men and women are in," said Walton. "There are a lot of people who are returning to the workplace, and putting aside their hesitancy, because their students need them."

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Rubén Rodriguez/Unsplash

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