Speech pathologists at Calgary schools say they're 'heartbroken' after surprise layoffs

A number of layoffs came as a surprise to certain employees of the Calgary Board of Education on Thursday — a move that Alberta Education says is likely to be rescinded.

Alberta Education says layoffs should be rescinded by the Calgary Board of Education

The Calgary Board of Education delivered layoff notices to approximately 1,900 part-time and full-time staff Thursday, citing a provincial funding reduction announced in March. (David Donnelly/CBC)

On Thursday, the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) delivered layoff notices to approximately 1,900 part-time and full-time staff, citing a $21-million reduction in its budget from the province announced in late March.

Those layoffs included breakfast and lunch supervisors, cleaners, library assistants and other staff. The province has said those workers will be hired back after the pandemic concludes.

But one group of Calgary school staff not expecting layoffs Thursday were speech language pathologists — school employees who help students who struggle with language and communication in the classroom.

The move was especially surprising to speech language pathologists considering recent word from the provincial government that program unit funding (PUF) would continue to flow to school authorities.

One speech language pathologist, whom CBC News has agreed to keep anonymous as they fear impact on future employment, said the CBE had laid off all speech language pathologists previously funded by PUF.

"I feel angry, primarily for the kids that we support. PUF supports children with moderate to severe exceptional needs," the speech language pathologist said. "So without our support, they don't have equitable access to the curriculum."

School response

Though 1,900 CBE employees will still face layoffs due to provincial budget reductions, a spokesperson for Alberta Education said PUF supports and services are expected to continue.

"As soon as we heard of this situation, we contacted the CBE to reiterate this expectation," said Colin Aitchison, press secretary to Minister Adriana LaGrange in an email to CBC News. "It is our understanding that the CBE is in the process of rescinding layoff notices for PUF funded positions."

But as it stands, the funding situation for speech language pathologists is complicated, according to the CBE — a spokesperson said there's not enough funding to last more than six weeks.

"Not all speech language pathologists perform work that receives funding through PUF, nor is all of the funding for those positions that do PUF-related work received through PUF," said Melissa Malcolm in an email to CBC News. "[These employees] will receive six weeks of notice and during that six-week period their services will be fully focused on PUF-related activities.

"This will utilize the portion of speech language pathologist time that is PUF funded over the six weeks of the notice period until the effective date of the layoffs."

Though the situation between Alberta Education and the CBE remains muddied, Calgary speech language pathologists say the kids will be the ones who suffer in the interim.

'We're ready to provide remote support'

A second speech language pathologist, whom CBC News has also agreed to keep anonymous, said the most "heartbreaking" part of the situation was how the situation unfolded.

"The direction we got from CBE right off the bat is that we weren't allowed to be in contact with our kids with families," the speech language pathologist said. "I want the kids and families out there to know that their speech pathologists didn't contact them because we weren't allowed to.

"I want my families to know how much we cared about them and how much it killed us not to be able to be in touch with them."

Children who require support from pathologists are still required to do home learning during the pandemic. Without additional supports, the speech language pathologist fears those kids will be left behind.

"Had we been kept on, we were ready to provide remote support. We call it teletherapy."

And though those employees who have been laid off have been told they will be rehired, the first anonymous speech language pathologist said they worry that recent changes to PUF funding may change what a post-pandemic school situation looks like. 

"There's so much research to show that early learning and early intervention is where you need to target these children," they said. "Our fear is we won't get hired back at all."

With files from Lucie Edwardson


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