Thousands of school support staff are in limbo as they await instruction on how to proceed at a time when remote learning is the indefinite norm.
Educational assistants, occupational therapists and bus drivers, among other employees with hands-on roles during a standard school day, are uncertain about the tasks they will undertake — if any — when spring break is over.
“There’s equal levels of frustration and equal levels of being afraid that we won’t have a job,” said Charmaine Gomes, an educational assistant in the Winnipeg School Division. “I try to be mindful and realize that at least for now, I am privileged to still have a job.”
Division spokeswoman Radean Carter said in a statement that senior administrators are working on a plan to redeploy non-teaching staff. The plan, to be informed by consultations with unions and trustees, is expected to be shared with employees later this week.
During the initial two-week suspension, Gomes and her colleagues were tasked with small projects to work on at home, finding online resources for students to use and sharing ideas with their respective classroom teachers. So far, it’s been a drastic change from what she’s used to — one-on-one work with students in an early years class who are on the autism spectrum or have behaviour-management issues.
Gomes is hopeful she’ll be able to continue working after April 13 by checking in with students and completing profile reports for those with exceptional needs, which record learning levels and future goals. She said such records will be of use when educators are playing catch-up in autumn.
Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly said divisions will reassign staff at their discretion. He has also said that people will be paid for their work if they are working, and that there are supports in place to ensure Manitobans don’t fall through the cracks.
Meanwhile, in Alberta, an estimated 25,000 EAs, supply teachers and other support workers are being laid off during indefinite in-person class suspensions. The funds budgeted for those employees are being redirected to the COVID-19 response in that province.
Both the Manitoba NDP and Liberals, as well as local unions, have taken aim at the Pallister government for the limited details made available to staff in the education sector.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union has penned a letter to the education minister to ask for Employment Insurance to be topped up to protect staff, according to president Michelle Gawronsky. She said Wednesday now is not the time for more fear and anxiety, but rather “strong leadership.”
At the same time, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Manitoba is adamant there are duties for all during the closures.
“From bus drivers to librarians to EAs, there’s more than enough work throughout the school division to keep all employees working,” said Abe Araya, who represents 5,000 education support staff across 24 school divisions in the province — including the Winnipeg School Division, where he was a longtime staffer.
Speaking from personal experience, Araya said maintenance staff are often crunched for time during the year. As well, he said classroom teachers need more support than ever to connect with students and support families who face at-home learning challenges such as language barriers.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.