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Support staff in public schools who have been without a wage hike since 2015 are facing a growing number of challenges supporting high-needs students in overcrowded classrooms, including risks to personal safety.
The Calgary Board of Education Staff Association, representing more than 6,000 support workers, is in contract negotiations, demanding a three per cent wage hike at a time when public schools take in record numbers of new students.
Warren Camp, director of operations for the staff association, said that because CBE has branded itself an inclusive system that turns no student away, no matter their complexity, educational workers are facing more challenges than ever.
“We are the largest public system west of Toronto, with the highest number of special-needs students,” Camp said.
“And we are seeing larger and larger classrooms, more and more complexities, where staff are increasingly in danger.”
‘Staff facing threats every single day’
Camp said larger classrooms mean high-needs students with behavioural problems are getting less attention. As a result, they lash out physically more often, breaking objects, punching, kicking or pulling hair, as they struggle to regulate their emotions.
“Our staff are facing these threats every single day,” he said. “And many of these students are teenagers, big kids, as tall as six feet, weighing 200 pounds.”
Roberta Palendat, who has worked as an educational assistant for several years but was laid off in June, said she suffered whiplash last year after a student grabbed her by the hair and pulled her off a chair.
“Many days, our jobs often involve putting out fires, whether working in a specialized class … or in a regular inclusive program setting. It’s a required skill we seem to use more frequently these days,” she said.
At one school, Palendat said educational assistants moved between eight or nine different classes each day to support students with various needs and regulation challenges.
“Sometimes, depending on the student or the situation, it can take the whole time to redirect and assist them in getting back on track. Then we have to leave them without support to go to the next grade or class.
“So when your day is often putting out those fires, trying to de-escalate situations and redirect in various classroom settings, it can be really difficult to find the time to work with some of the other students who also need us, to ensure they get a good education, too.
“And that’s really tough, because these students really need us.”
Rae-Ann Royal, chair of the staff association, added that classes have become particularly crowded this fall.
“We know there are not even enough desks in some classes, not enough classrooms in some schools, to deal with the huge populations of students we are getting.”
Camp said support staff are also struggling to balance low wages with a higher cost of living and a lack of affordable housing.
“They haven’t seen a wage hike since 2015, and they’ve been without a contract since 2020. They deserve at least a three per cent hike, retroactive to 2020.”
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Meanwhile, other education workers, including custodians and building maintenance staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, are also fighting for wage hikes.
CUPE’s We Work for Alberta campaign has collected more than 6,500 names, which have been attached to letters sent to the UCP government, demanding action around better funding for fair wages.
Rory Gill, president of CUPE Alberta, said some educational workers haven’t received a wage hike in eight years, earning an average $34,300 per year.
Wages for educational assistants, Gill added, are even lower at $26,388 per year, below Alberta’s poverty line of $26,550, with many having to work two to three jobs just to pay the bills.
“Ed assistants have it especially hard, they’re incredibly caring people, but they’re being told to just suck it up.
“And then they have to work at second or third jobs just to keep the lights on.”
Alberta Education says the government has increased funding for school authorities by more than five per cent, and has provided targeted funding to help hire up to 3,000 additional educational staff across the province.
“According to their own projections, school authorities are expected to hire more than 2,600 teachers, educational assistants and other support staff this school year alone,” said Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.
UCP officials added that more than 98 per cent of Alberta Education’s budget flows directly through school authorities who have the autonomy to make decisions regarding the staffing and operation of their schools.
But Gill argued that while the province claims to have increased education funding, “it’s just not true,” because inflation and increased enrolment have forced school districts to make cuts.
Rob Armstrong, CBE superintendent of human resources, said the CBE is close to reaching a settlement with the staff association after several months of collective bargaining.
“CBE Staff Association members play a critical role in supporting student success. We are committed to reaching an agreement that recognizes the hard work and dedication of more than 6,100 CBE employees represented by the staff association.”