The five-year-old boy who died Monday after wandering from his Saskatoon school yard into a pond needed specialized supervision due to his autism and lack of language skills, says the daycare worker who dropped him off that morning.
"We never let him go without supervision," Eman Arslan told CBC News.
Arslan dropped the boy off at Dundonald School at 9 a.m. Monday. It was his first day. The boy put his backpack and jacket in his locker and was greeted by the teacher before Arslan left.
"He was very calm," she said.
Just after the morning recess, the boy went missing and police were called. He was found minutes later in a pond less than a hundred metres from the school yard. He was rushed to hospital but pronounced dead shortly after arriving.
The pond is at the midpoint between the school and the boy's home.
"Maybe he wanted to run toward his house or something," Arslan said.
Arslan said the boy received one-on-one supervision at the community daycare. She isn't sure what plan there was at the school, but said she's not blaming anyone.
Concern over staffing levels
Jackie Christianson, chair of the education workers committee for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said there are concerns about staffing levels across the province. Those concerns are magnified when it comes to special needs students because their care requires more resources. She said more of these kids are losing their supports and being "mainstreamed."
"If you're mainstreaming autistic students that may be runners, and you've got less supervisors, you know, you're setting up a tragedy like what happened," Christianson said.
"The supports, there's not enough people. The students are running and [staff] are doing the best they can with what they've got."
Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre said now is not the time to talk about budgets. She extended condolences to the family, and noted she has a son as well.
Eyre said the government adequately funds school supervision and that funding isn't a factor in this incident.
Barry MacDougall, director of education and chief administrative officer of Saskatoon's board of education, said Monday that in general the number of teachers and support staff has remained steady or increased slightly over last year. He said he thinks the ratio of adults to children in schools is adequate
Christianson said details of this incident are unclear, but the union had warned the provincial government repeatedly that budget cuts could cause a safety risk.
"With each supervisor you cut, you're cutting two additional eyes, two additional hands, two additional feet. The support is not there for them," she said.
Christianson said she begged then minister of education Don Morgan not to impose the cuts on school boards when they spoke in May. CUPE issued a news release a week ago warning the cuts would make schools less safe.
"Our government cut more than $54 million, and this will make it more difficult for us to continue to help with the first-day jitters and make time at school a successful and safe experience," Christianson said in the Sept. 5 news release.
Christianson, who is herself an educational assistant, toured several schools over the past week. She said the lack of staff, including educational assistants for supervision, was a huge concern.
Neighbourhood resident Judy Tyler said a panicked teacher approached her during her walk Monday morning. The teacher said they were looking for a young boy.
Calls for fencing
Some are calling for increased security measures such as fencing around the school yard or the pond. An online petition calling for fences around all Saskatoon ponds has garnered nearly 300 signatures.
Coun. Troy Davies, whose ward includes Dundonald School, is calling for calm. He said some are calling for fences, but others are saying it's not realistic or wouldn't prevent such tragedies.
Davies hopes everyone will wait for the results of the coroners' investigation before making judgments. He said the city will participate fully in the process and make any changes necessary.
"We all have kids. My daughter played in that park. It really hits home," Davies said.
"You want to have an answer. You want it now … I totally get it. But it's my job to make sure we have accurate information, the facts, before we can make an informative decision."