Students with mild to moderate learning challenges in School District 43 could soon get help from a new type of support worker, The Tri-City News has learned.
But the planned addition of learning inclusion support workers — who would have one year of post-secondary education and be paid less than education assistants — has the union representing SD43 support staff concerned about an erosion of standards.
”If I was a parent, I would want a fully-qualified EA looking after my child,” said Dave Ginter, president of CUPE Local 561. "They want a fully qualified EA, they don’t want a watered-down version."
But diluting the qualifications of EAs is not the goal of the initiative, according to the district’s executive director of human resources.
Randy Manhas said SD43 is creating a new post to provide another level of help in the classroom and relieve the pressure on the pool of education assistants, who are in heavy demand.
The new job would require a year of post secondary education, with instruction in a wide range of fields, such as early childhood education, residential care or health care worker. EAs are required to have a two-year education assistant certificate.
There are no plans to stop hiring EAs, according to Manhas, who said, after hiring for full-time EA positions, the district still needs casuals to fill in when someone is sick, a shortage that is a province-wide problem. The new workers would fill in the gaps, he said, with up to 20 hirings planned this spring and a review of the job classification in six months.
“There are different levels of need for students and students can benefit from a different tier of support,” he said.
“This classification in no way is intended to diminish or minimize the vital role of EAs," he said. "We value our EAs, we think our EAs are outstanding and they are essential in to our students.
"We had an orientation where we just brought on 17 more. We’re not going to stop. What this does allow us is to take our highly trained and skilled EAs and to have them work with those who need them the most."
FREE UP EAS
Manhas said the new workers would help less challenging students, such as those with mild behaviour issues, anxiety, self-regulation, delayed language or speech articulation. Their job would include helping children with social interactions, for example, or small tasks such as hand washing for the younger children and other tasks to help them gain independence, Manhas said. They could also help students working with modified materials or instruction under direction of a teacher.
Supporting students with mild learning challenges would free up EAs to work with students with more complex needs, such as those with high dependency for eating, toileting, dressing, mobility, significant behaviour or mental health issues, as well as students with autism or other diagnoses who need more adapted instruction and materials, Manhas said.
But as the district seeks ways to bolster learning support services for kids, the union fears that the new job classification prioritizes less qualified, and lower paid workers over EAs, and work EAs usually do would be done by the new staff.
“[The district says] they’ll only look after certain kids… I don’t think they can commit to it,” said Ginter who added that he expects there will be times when the new learning inclusion support worker will be expected to fill in for an EA.
Instead, Ginter would like the district to establish a casual relief team of EAs who would fill in as needed instead of starting a new work classification. He argues the district should make the job of EA more attractive so they stay with the district, such as increasing the hours to 35 from 30 so EAs qualify for benefits.
Ginter said he would also like to see the province standardize pay and qualifications for EAs so districts can’t poach from one another, an initiative currently being promoted by CUPE with the current NDP government.
Manhas, meanwhile, said he hopes EAs, teachers and parents embrace the new workers because it will mean more resources in the classroom.
The district currently has 489 EAs, up from 200 in 2010/’11.
The rate of pay for the new post is still being determined by a joint union and management committee, and will be finalized in six months after a review, but it will be less than the advertised $27 an hour rate for casual EAs.