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Report from the front lines: Ontario Educational Assistant speaks

Ontario Education assistant

December 8, 2020

I’m an Educational Assistant with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, and I’d prefer not to give my name because they are pretty sensitive about anything that is said negatively about them. But I am more upset with the Ministry of Education, more than my school board.

My role as an EA is, basically I work with students who have physical, behavioural or intellectual need. I assist them with day-to-day tasks at school, I help them with their academics if they need assistance. I have students who need help with their alphabet and reading. These are kids up to 7 years old. I also have student who needs help with the bathroom, so toileting, changing diapers, cleaning up. Some EAs feed students as well.

I think the best way to describe our jobs, we’re the Personal Support Workers of the education world, comparable to PSWs in long term care homes. It is personal care on top of academics. And like PSWs most of us are part-time workers, and low paid. That means we pick up shifts in a number of schools to try to make a living.

So we have a better chance of getting COVID, and spreading it if we do. Our jobs are very precarious, we don’t have a choice.

Remote learning doesn’t work for my kids. It’s very hands on. A lot of the kids that are physically returning to schools are there because of their needs, or because their parents need respite. School is a lifeline for those parents. You can’t work on emotional or behavioural issues through e-learning.

Luckily, in my school, we have a lot of students registered for on-line learning, which works to keep class size down. The class I’m in half days has 22 kids. That is still too many for the space, but better than other schools where there isn’t so much e-learning. My school is in a real working class section of Hamilton, low income, high percentage of new Canadians. Often that means extended families living together, and ironically that means there is a better chance adults are home during the day–grandparents or whatever–to help make on-line classes work.

But some of the outlier schools, in suburban places like Ancaster or Dundas, where there is a higher income, more middle-class base, both parents have to work and more kids are in those schools. And we are seeing a lot more COVID cases in those schools, more than in the inner-city schools.

Different school boards are handling things differently. There is no consistency across the province. Take York Region, they are doing synchronous teaching, where a teacher is expected to teach in-person and on-line students at the same time. It’s awful. There are real privacy issues and teachers and EAs are getting burned out.

The reason I’m more pissed with the Ministry rather than my board, is that the government has never been clear about what we’re supposed to be doing. The money is insufficient to provide smaller class sizes, so we have to rely on luck.

And we are seeing cases, like in Toronto, where even if there are a lot of COVID cases they aren’t shutting down schools. There should be clear guidelines about what to do if you have COVID cases–I’d say more than two. You should shut that school down. That’s what I think.

But the government has never been clear, there are no guideline, and no money.

We’ve seen teachers in Toronto refuse to work. That’s great for them, they’re on salary, they have some protection. But I can’t, EAs can’t afford to do that. My job is so precarious I can’t walk out or refuse a shift. I only have two sick days, and that just covers a half-day pay. Two paid sick days in a pandemic.

Another example of the inconsistency is masking. In my school district masks are mandatory beginning with J K. But in the Niagara District, for kindergarten to grade 3 masks are optional. That’s the government’s fault.

Apart from a few kids with sensory issues and autism, or kids who need help putting on the mask, most of the kids are compliant. They really get it. They’re way more compliant than the adults in their lives. But then I have to cover a nutrition break and those masks come off and I have to make sure they don’t get up and mingle.

If the Ministry of Education really cared about school safety and kid’s wellbeing they would cut class size. There are plenty of teachers, sitting on the sidelines. The government just doesn’t want to pay.

When it comes to arguing that schools are unsafe and should be shut down, there were big arguments about “My kid’s mental health. Mental health, mental health.” I’m a specialist in working with kids with needs. Sure there are some anxiety issues but they come from kids not being able to play together. In September Ontario opened bars and restaurants, but restricted kids on playgrounds. Of course kids were anxious. And when they come to school and the staff and teachers are under stress–it trickles down to the kids and that creates adverse effects.

I think it is more stressful for them to be in school. On top of the pandemic, they are behind academically. Teachers are trying their best to catch them up, but to be honest this year is a write off.

I’m pissed about the arrogance coming from the MoE. And also the Ministry of Labour. We had a worker in Toronto die from COVID–a Child and Youth Workers. Yes she was an older person, and yes she had asthma, but that isn’t a dire, deadly thing. You’d think the MoL and agencies like WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) would be there to keep us safe. Oh no, they’re there to throw put excuses to cover the government’s decision to keep schools open at any cost.

Instead of looking into the schools as centres of contagion they are saying “No. It is community spread.” Kids are being sent to school sick, or not knowing they’re carriers. And they are making teachers sick. But the government refuses to admit it. All their messaging is super confusing and inconsistent. Are they making it up as they go along? Not long ago Stephen Lecce announced schools would close for an extra two weeks over Christmas to get things under control. The very next day he contradicted himself, scrapped the whole idea. That’s typical of their arrogance.

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