Alberta parents worried how latest cuts will further disrupt student education

News that thousands of educational assistants, school bus drivers, and substitute teachers are expected to be laid off was met with swift condemnation from Alberta teachers and parents.

'We're going to leave a certain demographic of student dangling'

Alberta parents are worried about education for their children in coming months after the Alberta government decided to redirect $128 million from education to the COVID-19 response. (Juliya Shangarey/Shutterstock)

News that thousands of educational assistants, school bus drivers, and substitute teachers are expected to be laid off was met with swift condemnation from Alberta teachers and parents.

On Saturday, Alberta Education announced a plan to redirect $128 million from school boards to the province's COVID-19 response. School boards are being asked to issue temporary layoff notices to educational assistants, non-essential support staff and bus drivers.

Social media sites were soon flooded with posts from parents who are worried that their children would lose critical learning support.

Greta Gerstner's two children, 13-year-old Amy and 10-year-old Aaron, have both received additional learning support during their time in school. 

"I don't think [the government] understand the sheer pressure and emotional distress that parents are under," Gerstner said.

"Right now, especially when both parents are possibly laid off as a result of the economy and the virus … I think they are expecting a lot from parents that are at home and that's just not fair." 

Greta Gerstner with her 10-year-old son Aaron and 13-year-old daughter Amy. Gerstner says both of her children have been helped by school educational assistants. (Greta Gerstner/Supplied)

Amy has severe dyslexia, which Gerstner has worked to address by hiring extra support the family pays for.

Aaron is in Grade 5 at Crawford Plains School in Mill Woods. He gets extra math and reading support along with small groups of students, giving him more one-on-one time with educational assistants. 

"The educational assistants support the teachers and build relationships with the children where the teacher can't always," Gerstner said.

"The parents are an important part of that collaboration," she added. "Not once have we been consulted in any of this."

The government called the measure a temporary adjustment to reflect the cost of at-home learning.

It said funding would be restored when in-person classes resume, a statement that Gerstner doesn't fully trust. When in-person classes were cancelled a few weeks ago, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said schools would receive "their full allotment of funding" for the remainder of the school year.

"Thirteen days ago, they said that education funding wouldn't be touched for the balance of this year," Gerstner said.

Layoff decisions up to the boards

In a statement late Sunday, a government spokesperson said school divisions will be expected to make layoff decisions based on what they need going forward.

"School authorities will look at the specific funding impact to them and then determine the best course of action," said Colin Aitchison, LaGrange's press secretary. "They will consider how they are delivering at-home learning in their communities and take action based on their own circumstances."

Aitchison added that laid-off staff would be eligible for the federal government's enhanced employment insurance program, as well as other worker support programs.

Michael Tryon is a substitute teacher and executive director of Canadian Parents for French Alberta. (Charlotte Dumoulin/Radio-Canada)

The Saturday announcement came as a surprise to an Edmonton area substitute teacher who said he had received an email one day before that he would have a job until the end of June.

"It was not a great time to make the announcement," said Michael Tryon, who is also executive director of the Alberta branch of Canadian Parents for French.

"Regardless of when the announcement came out, it was a shock."

The email he received was sent to a number of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members.

Tryon is skeptical about the government's assertion that this is a necessary response to an unprecedented situation.

"We're saying we can use these funds to help pay for the COVID crisis but we're going to leave a certain demographic of student dangling without the supports that they're used to."

Tryon also worries about further disruption to the routines of students. 

"They've lost their circle of friends. They were rushed out of school, most of them didn't have a chance to bring stuff with them. They're confined to home," he said.

"So they're stressed out as it is."

Now with the funding cut for educational assistants, Tryon worries about parents who he says are losing critical support.

He said educational assistants could have been a valuable asset for the online learning expected to continue until the end of the school year.

"Educational assistants, they're part of their learning team. They're part of their reality. They're part of a group of adults that helps them become successful in school," he said.

"Cutting them out now, during this time of crisis, is a mistake."