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School support workers in Surrey pushed to breaking point

Students with disabilities are falling through the cracks in Surrey School District
(Black Press Media files)

A support worker in Surrey School District is sounding the alarm that they are not OK.

The individual, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from their employer, told the Now-Leader about the immense pressure they are under.

“I feel like there are a lot of people in the schools working their butts off to try and make sure that these kiddos don’t fall through the cracks, but I feel like we are all stretched so thin that they are starting to,” they said. “It’s getting to the point where we just don’t have enough, and we can’t do any of it well, and it’s just heartbreaking to go and do it every day.”

“I really do care about the kids I work with, and I want to see them succeed, and I know with the knowledge I have I can help them with that, but I can’t right now,” they said. “I am very good at my job, and I’m coming off the rails. My mental health is going because it’s just like it is non-stop,” they said.

They told the Now-Leader they were not alone in feeling this. They have seen a rapid increase in the number of support workers in Surrey asking how they can go on stress leave.

In an email, Ritinder Matthew, communications director at Surrey Schools, told the Now-Leader that they do not have data to confirm this increase.

“We do track various health metrics and take these concerns seriously. We have several supports available for staff, and our employee health and safety team actively assists staff in accessing these resources,” Matthews said.

The support worker went on to describe a classroom in the Surrey school district where 50 per cent of the class requires extra support. “There are two support workers in the room, and they are supporting three or four kiddos at a time, and it’s exhausting,” they said.

“So we’ve got 10 students who require extra support, that means there are another 10 students who are also not getting their needs met,” they said.

“From what I am told, like the classroom I just described, that’s like the case everywhere,” they said. “Everyone is struggling with this.”

The Now-Leader asked what the solution is. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s so bad I just don’t know how they’re gonna fix it, aside from throwing lots of money at it because we need buildings and we need teachers and we need support staff and we don’t have it,” they said.

“I feel like we have gotten ourselves into a situation that’s like, pretty scary and like, in order to fix the problem, like very drastic measures need to be taken,” they said.

“We need money so that we can build enough schools for the students we have, but we also need to plan for all the incoming students because of this big push now from the government to build middle- and low-income housing, which we totally need it, but where are we going to put the children that doesn’t involve a split bell schedule?”

Some high schools in Surrey will be looking different next year, as changes to mitigate overcrowding in classrooms are coming. The Surrey school board said an extended-day model will be implemented in September 2024. This would mean that a school day would be split into five periods per day, and students would attend four of the five periods.

READ MORE: Schedule change coming for 7 Surrey high schools due to over-crowding

The school district, which is the biggest and fastest growing in the province, employs more than 1,800 inclusive education support workers (IESW), and more than 648 IESWs are on the on-call list and available to sub if needed. More than 82,000 students attend one of 140 district schools across the city.

“The schools and the districts have to make really tough choices, and really what it comes down to is they have enough money to deal with safety concerns,” they said. “So if there are children who hurt themselves or others, or have like extreme behaviour,” they will get support, they said.

“We’ve also got certainly an increase in the number of kids who actually are receiving diagnoses, and then we’ve got sort of the former promised land of Surrey for students with autism,” they said.

The support worker said Surrey used to be referred to as the “promise land” for students with autism because the district had supports available that other districts did not have at the time. Families flocked to Surrey so their kids could access these supports.

As a result, “there’s a lot of kids that need a lot of help now and we can’t give it to them. We try our very best every day, we really do, but a lot of us are getting tired.”

“The situation is negatively impacting our teachers and the support staff and definitely the kids, and it all comes down to money,” they said.

Support staff who have spoken out in the past have gotten in trouble from their employer, they said.

“I don’t know how to draw attention to the problem and to advocate for our students and ourselves and the teachers if we aren’t able to talk about it,” they said.

“That’s why I am choosing to be anonymous today because the ramifications could be bad for my employment status,” they said.

Matthews stated in an email to the Now-Leader that the district has a “robust system of support” for students with diverse needs and abilities. This includes wrap-around team support, individual learning plans, thorough evaluation processes and consistent and flexible support.

“Our district is committed to ensuring that our students receive the support they need, and we are continuously working to recruit IESWs (support workers) for the spare board to maintain a consistent level of support for our students,” Matthews said.

-With files from Sobia Moman

Anna Burns

About the Author: Anna Burns

I cover health care, non-profits and social issues-related topics for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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