Despite widespread concern that Surrey students with special needs will receive less classroom assistance in the new school year, district officials assure there will be no cuts to service or education assistant hours.
Many parents of students with special-learning or health issues were told by school staff in recent weeks that their children would be receiving less classroom support from Education Assistants (EAs) starting in September.
For example, Tina Keefe was initially informed that daughter Madelyn, who has a serious congenital heart defect, would have her EA hours cut from full-time to just eight hours per week. She was subsequently told the hours would be cut, but that it remained unclear how much.
“This concerns me greatly for my child’s safety at school,” says Keefe, explaining her daughter was born with half a heart and has some developmental issues because she’s spent so much time in hospital.
“We depend on these EA hours not only for her safety – as she could go in to cardiac arrest at any time – but also for help in the classroom.”
Another said her son’s hours are also being reduced, despite the fact his behaviour once prompted his school to be evacuated.
A third said she was advised her child’s hours with EA support would be cut drastically unless she got a doctor’s letter saying the boy (who has autism) requires additional support in the classroom. That parent spends hours advocating for her child, and worries other parents won’t be able to do the same.
However, the Surrey School District says the confusion about EA cuts stems from two things: a glitch in the computerized government system that isn’t yet showing the hundreds of new kindergarten students entering B.C. schools in September, and a miscommunication of the new system of doling out EA hours to Surrey students.
While the provincial government’s student information system has deducted the EA hours of the Grade 7s who are leaving for high school, it hasn’t added in the kindergarten enrolment numbers for fall. That has resulted in an inaccurate picture – and, in many cases, an apparent reduction in total EA hours.
As for apparent changes in EA hours for individual students, Rick Ryan, deputy superintendent of the school district (previously the director of special education in Surrey) says service to children with learning needs will not be reduced.
“The board has not made any reductions, they’ve in fact added hours,” he said.
That was confirmed by Shawn Wilson, chair of the Surrey Board of Education, who said that not only is the current number of EAs in the district being maintained, plans are in the works to hire another 35 for fall.
The difference for the coming year, explained Ryan, is that instead of principals simply receiving a block of EA time, they’ve been shown where those hours come from and how they’re allocated per student, so administrators can see the level of need for each child.
As has been the case for several years, principals still have the discretion to use the total EA hours at their school where they see fit.
To concerned parents such as Keefe, Ryan advises seeking clarification with the school principal.
“Hours are going to flow and principals are going to have discretion. If that was my child, I would say ‘so, tell me what support is going to look like for my child. Don’t tell me about eight hours because I know you have discretion. I need the confidence that my child’s needs are going to be attended to and so tell me how that’s going to happen,'” he said.
“If I were a principal, I would say ‘well, clearly it’s going to look a lot like it did last year, so don’t get caught in the 27, 25 or 8, get caught up in the support and the plan that we are responsible to provide.’ “
Ryan noted that according to the School Act, EA time is technically teacher assistant time, not student assistant time, to ensure classrooms as a whole are well supported.
“Obviously, the more complex a child is, the more one-on-one support they’re going to require,” Ryan says. “But what we’re wanting the teacher and the EA and the principal to be able to do is to use judgment to say ‘how do we best support all our learners?'”
Ryan said the district is working to clarify things and said principals who still feel there needs to be changes or additions to their school’s EA hours must contact the district.
“We constantly make adjustments. It never stops, all year long.”