Since schools closed two weeks ago, Duane Froese’s daughter has worked with an educational assistant (EA) almost every day using video conferencing.
Froese’s daughter has Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects motor ability. She has worked with her current EA daily in the classroom for the past two years to adapt lesson plans to help her perform on par with the other kids in her Grade 2 class.
“She is nonverbal, she also does not walk, and she has limited hand function,” Froese, who lives in Edmonton, said. “And so the aides really facilitate her learning through adapted communication.”
With recent school closures related to the coronavirus pandemic, those in-class sessions have shifted online. Alberta has moved towards at-home learning for all students, but Froese says the EA has been a vital resource in particular helping his daughter adapt to learning from home.
But that resource may not be there forever.
Provincial funding cuts announced over the weekend include layoffs to an anticipated 26,000 education support workers in Alberta, which could leave many kids without vital educational supports.
The cuts were unveiled Saturday by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, who called them a necessity in the wake of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19 has changed both how we provide student learning, and the operational needs of the education system,” LaGrange said in a statement.
“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.”
Watch: Alberta announces jump in COVID-19 deaths. Story continues below.
Around $128 million in funding will be cut from Alberta’s K-12 education systems in areas the province deems unessential in terms of remote learning, including support staff such as educational assistants, bus drivers and custodial staff. The Alberta Teachers Association estimates the cuts will lead to 20,000 layoffs of support staff and up to 6,000 substitute teacher layoffs.
In a statement Saturday, Rory Gill, the president of the Alberta division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, called the cuts “heartbreaking.”
“With a surprise announcement, lacking in detail, on a Saturday afternoon, the Kenney government has just fired thousands of people who look after and educate our kids,” said Gill.
A big challenge
Froese worries that if his daughter’s EA is laid off, their family and the classroom teacher won’t be able to give her the support she needs.
“We’re not professionals in these areas of, you know, special needs learning,” he said. “We’re parents who are well educated — I’m a professor at the university. We should be OK at doing some of this but, I’m finding it a big challenge.”
“We’re not professionals in these areas of, you know, special needs learning.”
He said he has long advocated for his daughter and other disabled kids, but he worries about kids who don’t have a strong parental support system.
“Not all kids have parents who are comfortable advocating on their behalf,” he said. “When you think about the impact of EAs who are helping kids and helping families, not all parents are either going to have the capacity or have the ability to potentially work with the kids in the same way as other families.”
The value of assisted learning
Shelly Moore is a doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia who specializes in inclusive education. She said her “heart hurts” for the families impacted by the cuts.
“The tricky thing about funding cuts in general is that very often some of the most vulnerable learners are the ones that are affected by this,” she said. “And so then to find out on Saturday, but a whole other round of cuts are coming that directly impact kids with disabilities — I really understand why people are upset.”
Moore argued EAs are even more essential in a remote-learning environment in order to help adapt kids to the new learning space and build a bridge between the classroom teachers and parents at home.
“Very often some of the most vulnerable learners are the ones that are affected by this.”
“This is going to put a lot of stress on teachers who just physically don’t have the time to be able to meet all the needs of these kids,” she said. “EAs are critical to this process because they know the kids in the family and they have more time to give to kids and families to give that scaffolding, and translate that classroom curriculum to these remote locations.”
Froese said he’s spoken to other parents of special needs kids in Alberta, and that they are “scrambling” to develop strategies to help their kids learn in the coming months without EAs. He also pointed out many kids who have aids are high risk kids, and they will be even more impacted by the cuts.
“There are kids that need the support and need these connections and need the structure that the EAs can provide to them while they’re transitioning to the home learning environment,” he said. “And without that, I would think a lot of these kids are going to be a little bit rudderless.”
Moore said the best thing parents can do is acknowledge this is a huge change in many ways, and take each day one step at a time for their sake and the sake of their kids.
She said no matter your child’s ability, educating from home can be hard, and it’s OK to put academics on the back burner in favour of keeping kids active, connected and feeling safe.
“The expectation is not that they recreate educational programs for their kids,” she said. “Right now I think it’s really about parents working to support each other to support their kids.”
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