'Crisis' underway for many students with special needs: teachers' federation
Published Wednesday, November 8, 2017 5:47PM PST
Dozens of parents and educators have contacted CTV News, raising the alarm about dangerous situations for students with special needs, many of whom are being sent home in the absence of appropriate supervision.
Now, the union representing BC teachers says the situation is so dire, they’ve named it a “crisis.”
"On the first day of school, I was really reluctant to use the term 'crisis' but by the time we got to the end of September and this problem wasn't subsiding, we started to use that," says BC Teachers’ Federation president Glen Hansman.
A hiring blitz has seen some 3,500 teachers hired in the province to comply with a Supreme Court of Canada ruling around class size and composition.
Many of those full-time educators, however, have come from the ranks of teachers on call (TOCs) or substitute teachers.
That means when a teacher is sick, there are no more TOCs to replace them, so Special Education Teachers or Education Assistants are often pulled from their assigned pupil to front entire classrooms instead. Those children with special needs who no longer have supervision are being sent home.
“It should be done as a last resort,” says Hansman. “We wouldn't just be telling a grade 3 class, 'Oh, by the way, grade 3 isn't happening today because there's no teacher,' so why would we do the same for special ed programs in the schools?"
For many parents, appropriate supervision is a matter of life and death. Jennifer Dunn’s seven-year-old daughter, Kya, has autism and is considered a flight risk.
“She will walk into oncoming traffic. She’ll walk into a body of water,” Dunn said. “She has no sense of danger whatsoever.”
As a result, Kya has to be under the supervision of an education assistant (EA) at all times, but Dunn said securing those resources has been challenging as the Surrey school district struggles with staffing. While she applauds the hard work her daughter’s teacher and principal have done to help Kya, she says finding a consistent EA was a challenge. The grade 2 student, who has issues communicating, also hasn’t seen a speech therapist yet this year.
"Somebody should be coming in, that's what you're told," says Dunn.
But she says advocating for her daughter to get basic services has been emotionally draining.
“If you speak up, you are shunned. I can tell you it wasn't fun last year. The teachers don't want you in the classroom anymore.”
Some of the assistants that are hired, she added, are not equipped to deal with children facing severe challenges.
“They need to be better trained,” Dunn said. “They need to be more aware that communication is key. So for my daughter, she needs to be prompted to go to the washroom, she needs to be prompted to eat and there’s just no communication between the parents and the EA and the school.”
In November of 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of reinstating standards on class sizes, resulting in a need for about 3,500 additional educators in B.C.
In its ruling, the court said legislation implemented by the province's previous Liberal government in 2002 that prevented teachers from negotiating class size and composition related to special needs students was unconstitutional.
This left school districts across B.C. scrambling at the end of August to hire more teachers ahead of the new school year.
Career websites currently advertise as many as 400 open positions in the province.
A teacher who spoke to CTV News anonymously called this “the worst and most stressful year ever” in terms of resources for kids with special needs.
The province’s newly-elected NDP government says education is a priority and they’ve put “unprecedented amounts of new resources” into the school system. The education minister suggested a handful of parents are raising personal issues, but that with 550,000 students in the system, overall things are going “smoothly.”
"In many districts, they've completed their hiring [of new teachers] and they’re doing really well,” Education Minister Rob Fleming said Wednesday. “But I do understand parents who have individual situations that are frustrating and want the best for their kid. I get that, as a parent.”
Fleming added that the province now has 3,500 more teachers than it did last year and that the government has added half a billion dollars in funding for schools.
But the province admits more can be done, and the minister wants to look into how they can improve conditions for children with special needs with a review, something he says hasn’t been done in decades.
“I'm happy to hear reports from superintendents from different districts that special needs learners are their focus. They want to drive improvements there. They want to work with parents."
Despite the new government’s efforts to hire more teachers, many parents are speaking out in frustration they’re not seeing an improvement. Dunn said she has yet to see a significant change, adding that Kya’s school is still struggling to find the girl a permanent support worker.
“Originally, they were going to have to rotate workers every week, but for a child with autism that just upsets every moment of her day,” she said. “Last year she had a lot of turnover for EAs and it’s just a recipe for disaster.”
With files from The Canadian Press