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Education support staff blindsided by cuts

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling estimated some 6,000 substitute teachers and 20,000 support staff could be laid off as a result of this cut.

Some Alberta teacher’s aides found out they were being temporarily laid off through Facebook, while others found out through phone calls from union leaders.

On Saturday, March 28, Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced in a press release she would divert some $128 million from school funding to help support the province’s COVID-19 response while in-school classes were cancelled.

The cash comes from funding for transportation, substitute teachers, educational assistants and other services that aren’t currently being used while schools are closed, but many support staff say they were part of the plan to roll out online education to students.

Lee-Ann Kalen, president of the support staff union at St. Albert Public Schools and an educational assistant at Sir George Simpson School, said she found out from a phone call from other union presidents on Saturday.

“We had a phone meeting and I found out about it that way. But then immediately after that, I was getting text messages from other coworkers who were (asking) if this was true,” Kalen said.

RELATED: Alberta temporarily reduces K-12 funds for services that won't be used in at-home learning

Lisa Hillas, a teacher’s aide at Lois E. Hole School, said she found out on Facebook she would likely lose her job.

"I'm like, 'This can’t be for real,'" Hillas said.

Hillas said she searched for more information online about the layoffs and asked around to verify the announcement.

Right now, she is still working and doesn't know when her temporary layoff will start.

Kalen said she believes layoffs will begin at the end of April. As of right now, she isn’t sure the number of people who will temporarily lose their jobs.

Both support staff said they were part of the planning for online learning for students. Teachers, they said, will now have to do two jobs.

“It's going to be a lot more difficult for the teachers because some of these teachers have many, many students, many different subjects to teach, and now they're going to have to be dealing with, you know, working one-on-one with half of their class at times,” Kalen said.

Kalen said along with increased teacher workloads, students will be hit by this change, too. Students who need extra supports will be impacted the most, but Kalen said many students need an extra hand from time to time.

“It’s really putting our students at a disadvantage and setting them up for failure.”

Sarah Muldoon, who has a five-year-old in afternoon French Kindergarten and an 11-year-old in an advanced academic class, said she is concerned about how the change will impact her kids’ learning.

“Our education is already so strained and they were working so hard to get us learning at home. They came up with a plan and then we get an email from the schools that that plan included the educational assistants, and now they need to revamp the plan a little bit,” Muldoon said.

“It just is so ridiculous what this government is doing to teachers, to students, to the vulnerable populations. It just sickens me."

RELATED: Alberta cancels diploma exams; launches plan for online learning

Muldoon is concerned her Kindergartener isn’t going to be able to learn much for the rest of the year with just one teacher assigned to teach a class of 26 young children.

LaGrange said in a press release COVID-19 has changed how schools are providing student learning and the operational needs of the education system.

“I want to stress that this is a temporary arrangement as schools focus on at-home learning. I have full confidence the system will continue to be equipped to successfully deliver our education continuity plan," LaGrange stated.

Staffing impacts will be determined by individual school boards, education minister press secretary Colin Aitchison said in an email.

Anyone laid off by this adjustment is being encouraged to apply for the federal government’s enhanced employment insurance program.

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling estimated some 6,000 substitute teachers and 20,000 support staff could be laid off as a result of this cut, and said he hoped the province would reverse it and keep its promise to maintain education funding.

“They have the budget in place to keep everyone employed at this time,” he said, and the province has previously shown it has the resources to deal with COVID-19 without cutting education.

Educational assistants would have been working with teachers to create lesson plans and follow up with students, particularly special needs students, who needed additional support.

“We have groups of students out there who do not have access to the Internet,” he said, and these aides would have been preparing paper lessons for them.

Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools superintendent David Keohane said he was surprised by the province’s cuts, which amount to 51 per cent of the district’s transportation budget and 14 per cent of its base instructional grant, but that he understood the need to support the province’s COVID-19 response.

“It’s tough decision-making all round.”

Keohane said the district will work with principals to determine which non-teachers on staff could be laid off.

“Any promise we made to the public regarding the type of education students will be receiving will not be compromised.”

Keohane said educational assistants might not be meeting directly with students right now, but can still help digitize student records and help teachers provide students with feedback.

COVID-19 UPDATE: Follow our COVID-19 special section for the latest news on the coronavirus pandemic, as well as resources, FAQs and more.

St. Albert Public Schools superintendent Krimsen Sumners sent a letter to parents explaining the provincial changes.

"As you can imagine, we are extremely disheartened by this decision. When the government first announced that schools would close, they stated that regular funding would continue, and we developed our plans accordingly," Sumners stated.

The superintendent said over the past two weeks the district had been working hard to put plans in place that included all staff members.

"We may be delivering the curriculum in a new way, but we know the need to provide extra supports to our students still exists, and this was a valuable role we planned on having our support staff fill," Sumners stated.

"However, we are suddenly, and with no warning, faced with a new reality right before we are ready to start down this new learning path. We are now working with the school administration teams to put new plans in place. While we are uncertain at this point what this will look like, we want to reassure you that your child’s education remains our top priority. We will work together to ensure that we continue to support your children as best we can."

– With files from Kevin Ma

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Media based in St. Albert, Alta.
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