On the latest OPSEU Talk, President Warren (Smokey) Thomas talks to two of the forgotten frontline heroes in our public schools: education workers.

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00:05 Thomas: Hi everyone, and welcome to OPSEU/SEFPO talk. I’m Smokey Thomas, President of OPSEU/SEFPO and today we’re talking about the forgotten frontline heroes in our schools – and that would be our Education Workers. You know OPSEU/SEFPO proudly represents over 7,500 of these passionate hard working professionals who’ve been showing up to work throughout this pandemic giving our students’ academic, behavioral, emotional and medical support. They’ve been putting their own health on the line to be there for students and keep our schools running. But they’ve consistently been left out of the Ministry of Education pandemic consultations.

So, joining me today to talk about the experiences and expertise of our Educational Workers in our schools are Sandra Cadeau and Bonnie Eddy. Sandra is an educational assistant with the Simcoe County District School Board, the Chair of our Boards of Education and Cultural Institution Sector and the Vice-President of OPSEU/SEFPO local 330. Bonnie is a Child Youth Worker with Simcoe County District School Board, Vice-Chair of our Boards of Education and Cultural Institution Sector, and she is also Chief Steward of OPSEU/SEFPO local 330 and the Region 3 representative for the Provincial Women’s Committee.
Welcome sisters. You both have really educated me on the work that your members do and the breath of the work which I thought I knew, but boy was quite astounded. So, what I really like is, can you tell our listeners more about the work that each of you do in our schools and how these roles have changed since you started working in the sector? And maybe I’ll start with you Sandra.

1:49 Cadeau: Sure. So I’m actually an Educational Assistant. I’ve been working in that role for 22 years. I can tell you that that role has drastically changed over the 20 years that I’ve been in the role. When I first started off, we would have normally been assigned to maybe one or maybe a few students that we would have provided support, specifically for their academics. You have the odd case where there might be a physical needs that you would have to attend to things. But it was really focused on supporting with their academics. Nowadays, the enhancement to it and the look of the change is specifically dealing with behavioral, on top of the medical needs students we need to provide. We’re providing toileting, feeding and sectioning. We’re supporting the students that have prescribed physiotherapy exercises that they have to do. We’re doing any type of daily living care things that are required that they need the supports with.

We’re the frontline supports that are needed for those students to be in the schools to be successful. In that particular case, it is very difficult to maintain social distancing and also maintaining the dignity of the students that needs those supports. So, it is a balance as an educator and someone that wants to do the best to provide those supports for the students and also maintain the dignity of that student. We can’t social distance. We have this new dilemma of the COVID-19 in our school systems and the precautions that are needed to be placed. So we have additional PPE that we have to wear, that wasn’t in place prior. So that has been put into a mix to that. The other component to it is that we’re usually the first staff that students will see and we’re the last staff that they will see. We are the front support for those students to be successful in the school.

3:57 Thomas: Thank you. I’ll let Bonnie speak.

4:01 Eddy: Thank you. To build on that, I originally started probably about 18 or 19 years ago as an Educational Assistant. So my trade is as a Child Youth Worker. I had the opportunity to start working with students in a different capacity, and that capacity is to provide social and emotional support to individuals throughout their day. And that’s kind of like the tier 1 kinds of support. So if their dysregulated throughout the course of the day, or, if their having significant issues with self-regulation and coping strategies, and emotional distresses, they are often referred to the limited number of Child Youth Workers within in the school. We’re fortunate just to hire another five, but there’s only twenty of us. So, I can’t remember how many new schools we have in Simcoe County, but the elementary panel is quite large. We’re called an ‘itinerant’, so we’re working in two schools. So we split that time and we do a variety of groups that help them identify stressors in their bodies and recognize how to cope and manage through the course of their day and give those life skills that they need for long term success.

5:12 Thomas: Thank you. So for the next question. There’s this public perception that when the schools were shut down and remotely learning, that nobody was in the schools. But you folks, our members who do the work that you do, that are in there every day, never work from home.

5:31 Cadeau: I will confirm when the announcement came on December 22nd from the Ministry that they were going to expand the winter holiday, but, there was going to be an exception for the students that qualify for the special education classroom, that they knew truthfully that do not benefit from remote learning. Those students were going to attend. I need to point out that those students that are attending in those schools are unmasked. Their exempt from wearing a mask. So, a lot of these classrooms are specialized classrooms that require specific training. We have a particular classroom call ASD, where our students are assigned to two Educational Assistants that have to provide support. So, normally there are six of them in the room. So, you’ll have 6 EA’s and a teacher specifically working those rooms. All of those types of specialized classroom were attending during the lockdown whenever we’re doing remote learning. Interesting enough, across all the 72 Boards, there was some cases in some school boards that were being flagged that the education workers were actually in the building, but the teacher had the ability to stay home and provide their curriculum based learning trough remote learning, but our education workers had to be in physically in the building providing the course to the students.

6:56 Thomas: So that actually brings me to my next question then. What are the key differences between the support teachers offer to the student, and the support that education workers offer? She just touched on one, I’ll get you both.

7:11 Cadeau: So teachers are providing and delivering the curriculum to the students, where an Educational Workers is actually providing the supports to the students. So they are maintaining whether the student is having difficulty with self-regulating, having behavioral averse, it’s the Educational Assistant or even an ABA Coordinator, we have lots of classifications, so I’m going to say Educational Workers are the ones to respond and provide the supports. We’re the ones that are trained in crisis management, were the ones that need to figure out a resolution in the midst of the moment of how to solve or support the student that is not doing very well. We find what’s called ‘band-aid solutions’, because, the unspoken thing that is happening with Educational Workers is we’re spread so thinly and underfunded for staffing that we’re not necessarily assigned to one or two students. We’re now assigned to a school system, where you’re providing so many support in so many different classrooms. So right now the term “cohorts” is what their assigning while were working through this COVID-19 pandemic. So really, what there is cohorts is the classroom, is education workers are going between several classrooms. Several cohorts. We’re providing supports either giving breaks to the staff that we support, because their entitled to their breaks. Our breaks are not the same as a teacher. Teachers all have their same time, they have their 40 minute break together. Education Workers have their work times and breaks times all different than anything else. We’re just spread very thinly. Can you add to that Bonnie?

8:57 Eddy: So to build on, I think it’s important to recognize that there is a small population of students who are attending schools in Ontario that their behaviour is large, and when they have certain outbursts that requires a class to be evacuated. So what’s going to happen, is to maintain the safety of the populist of the classroom, the teacher will then take all of those students out of that class, but it’s the education support workers that is going to be involved. Whether it is the ABA worker, whether it’s the Child Youth Worker, or the EA, multiple of teams is going to be responding to that student so they’re left behind.

And hear is the thing that what we want people to truly understand, is that although were supporting those individuals with the high needs and struggle, we also need to recognize the individuals in the classroom that don’t need those kinds of supports are still being subjected to the kinds of issues that are happening. So, on average, most classrooms are anywhere from 25 to 30 students, and that in of itself is an issue, but when you have students who are experiencing difficulties, and numbers are increasing exponentially, those students who are neurotypical for lack of better words, is they end up being impacted by the behaviours and distractions. The teachers have the responsibility to teach to the 30, but then you have those individuals whose being negatively affected, because they’re not teaching to their skill levels – so there’s some struggles.

Our responsibility then, is to figure out how do we then support those individuals who require day-to-day moment-to-moment, but yet still let’s not forget about the other individuals who are being directly impacted.

In conclusion to that thought, we cannot physically change the dimension of the walls in a classroom, but we are in control of how many desk and how many students are in there. So if the government wants to talk about the low numbers or literacy and numeracy, then we’ve got to look at the system that’s being built for these students to be successful in. And what we want to advocate for in the grand scheme, is there’s got to be funding that recognizes the nuances of the mental health well-being of our students, as well as their academic struggles to build up and foster resiliency with our children. And until that happens, we’re going to have low numbers. And that has to be a part of the conversation.

11:27 Thomas: My kids are all done school and university and everything, but I have friends who have kids in school and their kids come home some days and it’s pretty traumatic what happened in the classroom. So, I get you point on how do you balance the safety and provide an education for everybody. So it must be very very challenging work.

11:54 Eddy: And you know the sad thing, is that we’ve come to a place where we normalized that. Like that is the sad part, Smokey. They’re students who are seeing that, and when they go home and their parents ask “how was your day”, and they say “great”, and parents go “I’m glad to hear that”. Which is great, I’m glad that there is that check-in, but we’ve normalized those outburst. We’ve normalized the multitude of distractions that is common place. So we don’t realize the long term impact until they’re in grade seven, or grade twelve going on to post-secondary.

12:26 Thomas: Well my background is mental health, so I know what happens in your childhood can carry on into your adolescence and your adulthood. So, it’s a very valid point.

12:35 Cadeau: And to add this, there has been a lot of changes in the Ministry with funding. And a lot of these families look to school for rest pit. They need a break. They have their children 24/7, so a lot of funding has been cut, services have been cut. So, they rely on schools for structure routine for their children. But a lot of times, it’s hard work. An Education Worker doesn’t actually get into the work, because of what were paid. To be honest, the average Education Worker makes $38,000. People go into the work because they find value in it. They find the importance. They know the support. They know that there needs to be someone at the front advocating for their needs. And that’s really what an educator does. It doesn’t matter if it’s to the classroom teacher, or if it’s to their CERC or if they need certain supports.

13:35 Thomas: So, were going to continue this conversation again in another podcast, so just to wrap this segment up, what would be your top safety recommendations for the government right now to keep our schools running safely? I know more money, adequate funding and more staff would come to the top of my mind, but I’m sure you have more ideas that they can benefit from.

14:02 Cadeau: So the active screenings needs to continue for asymptomatic individuals whether that’s students and staff that needs to happen. So what currently is taking place a little is heighten from when we returned from the fall. If you have any types of symptoms there are not to be in school. That needs to continue and follow. So when you have one symptom on that list, they need to remain home, they need to seek advice from public health and go from there, monitor things.

Rapid testing needs to happen for all staff and student. That is now being expanded across all the 72 school boards. But the key thing, is that it’s voluntary. They had a pilot project in the hot zones in Peel and Toronto where this was happening, and from the pilot project it was over 45% students between grades 2 and grade 6 that were testing positive that were asymptomatic. Which was a really drastic kind of data to collect, that needs to happen. And what needs to happen is when schools are having significant outbreaks, they need to have constant contact with the public health, they need to have rapid testing happen all of the time. Because once it happens it goes ‘poof’.

Adding to that, ventilation is the other component that needs to be dealt with. We’re in schools that need dire repair when it comes to ventilation. It is a scientific proven fact, when you shove a bunch of people in a room like students and staff, and you’re confined to that area for seven hours with no proper ventilation, COVID-19 exposure you’re at high risk for that.

The other thing that is really significant is contact tracing. One of our locals was very successful in Peel to get this with their Board Peel. Specifically, because education workers are not necessarily assigned to one or two kind of things. There are education workers that are going between nine or ten cohorts. So they miss out, because their either providing serving from toileting, or their providing feeding, or their providing breaks and nutrition breaks everywhere. The part of this that was missing was when there was an outbreak or an exposure, they were never checked off or never monitored, or even presented that they were exposed to it. So that needs to be across province, for Education Workers specifically for contact tracing is happening. It is easy for teachers, because they are assigned a classroom and they only have the one cohort. And I will end it with, this government needs to invest in more Education Workers. It’s given.

16:48 Eddy: Absolutely, all of that. And I think the other thing is that when we get into the consultations with the government, there needs to be an understanding that they need to listen to hear, not to dictate. And I think that that’s really imperative, because their saying their sound bite that mental health is an issue and we’re concerned about the well-being of the students and the staff. But what’s happening is that their making these claims that there’s an investment and their deciding what needs to be done as oppose to listening to the actual people who are directly impacted by this pandemic, by the added stress load, by all those other kinds of things that are happening. Because life happens outside of their classrooms and we’re not taking that into effect, and there seems to be such rigid lines. So if you want true dialogue, and if you want a connection with the education system and the government, you’ve got to come to the table prepared to hear maybe uncomfortable things and own what’s really happening, and figure out what happens and what needs to go next.

17:48 Thomas: I agree with everything you’ve said on the way forward. Because if you think about it, we’ve had three decades of austerity, cuts and at the same time put more work on you folks. Bringing kids in the classroom that perhaps didn’t have a chance before, but if they’re not properly supported with the number of people.

So, in closing, I think we need to have another podcast on this topic and dive into what the government can do to make it better. I agree Bonnie, when you say they need to come to the table to listen, not to dictate, because I’ve run into that my whole career with politicians and bureaucrats, not all, but the vast majority. So, any last thoughts before we wrap up?

18:48 Cadeau: Well I actually could speak that I sit on those three working provincial working groups with the Ministry, and I really believe that it’s really truly a smoke and mirror thing. I really believe it is to say that they are consulting with all of the unions that are affiliated in education, but it’s very frustrating, because they’re really not hearing the members that is actually in the building and working. It is when we point out key things, it’s great to put things on paper and say this is the plan, but if you’re not actually hearing the people that are in the buildings and working and doing the things, and actually being okay to hear that things might fail, but let’s find a solution, is the key. And I can say right now, that’s really not happening, and it’s a very frustrating process. Because the other component is when Ontario is in a lockdown, but guess what, staff and students are in the building.
19:44 Eddy: I just want to conquer with everything. I thank you for giving us this opportunity and platform, because I think it’s really important that we need people to understand the depth of what’s going on in the schools. And I think that everybody brings to the table a great wealth of caring, passion and compassion and the struggles that their experiencing. And it isn’t until they have the government and people in general start to recognize the nuances, we will continue to have more people taking time away, because they need to take care of themselves. There’s going to be an increase in the decreased numbers. So the literacy and numeracy, if you want to just talk only about those two things, if we’re not handling the situation in the school, our numbers with literacy and numeracy are going down and that directly impacts every part of the province.

20:40 Thomas: So, folks thank you both for coming in. I think I’d conclude by saying this to anybody listening, if we really want a fair society, particularly for kids who we owe that to, then the government needs to invest in more human resources, and certainly in the physical structures and the number of staff that help our children that needs assistance, because it really is true. It takes a village to raise a kid. Sisters, thank you for coming in. I will have you back at some point, and we’ll do another podcast on the way forward, and we’ll do a paper to send to the government.

21:22 Cadeau: Thank you.

21:23 Eddy: That’s great. Thank you for having us.

21:23 Thomas: Thank you.