Amid dire shortage of educational assistants, Thames Valley school board looks to hire 200

There is such a chronic shortage of education assistants (EAs) who provide support to students with special needs that the Thames Valley District School Board in southwestern Ontario has dropped some qualification criteria and is hiring students on a temporary basis. 

Ontario school board has dropped some qualification criteria in order to make up the shortfall

There's a dire shortage of casual educational assistants at Ontario's Thames Valley District School Board, which covers Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford Counties and the city of London. (Colleen De Neve for CBC News)

There is such a chronic shortage of education assistants (EAs) who provide support to students with special needs that the Thames Valley District School Board in southwestern Ontario has dropped some qualification criteria and is hiring students on a temporary basis. 

"EAs work in jobs that are often very violent, we're paid very low and our job security isn't great," said Rebecca Avey, an educational assistant for 23 years who has recently become president of CUPE Local 7575, which represents the EAs who work for the Thames Valley board. 

"There's shortages in all kinds of sectors right now, and the problems are compounded in times of chaos like the pandemic and so here we are, short of trained and qualified people to work." 

The public TVDSB, which covers Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford Counties and the city of London, has more educational assistants than it ever has, said Andrew Canham, the superintendent in charge of special education, but there's not enough on a supply list to fill in when someone calls in sick. At least once a week, someone from the school board offices has to go to a school to fill in for an absent EA. 

"This school year we have an unprecedented high number of EAs. In 2018, we had 1,000 full-time EAs and this year we have 1,054. The challenge we're facing is that as staff members are absent due to COVID-19 or other reasons, we have a shortage in the number of casual employees," Canham said. 

"We're averaging less than one per school per day and we'd like to see 20 per cent more than that." 

That means stress on the existing EAs, who struggle if they have to call in sick, and on classroom teachers, who sometimes have to work with students who need one-on-one care, said Avey. 

200 more hires wanted

The board is looking to hire 200 casual educational assistants who would be on call and able to fill in when needed. The pay is $22 per hour and the school board has greatly relaxed the criteria for those casual positions. 

Recently, those hired had to have a two- or three-year diploma in development services worker, child and youth worker, educational assistant or educational support, or a relevant degree or diploma and paid experience working with kids with special needs.  

Not any more. 

Now, the board is willing to hire those in their last year of studies in a child-related field, and the board is working with Western University, King's University College and Fanshawe College to recruit, Canham said. 

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The staffing shortages have meant principals or vice-principals have to fill in for the missing EAs, or students are grouped in with other students who also require assistance, Canham said. 

Enrolment overall is higher than expected this year, and that includes students with special needs, he said. Sometimes, students have to go completely without EA support, or they are buddied up with another child who also needs help and support, said one London teacher.

As funding has dried up, educational assistants are not assigned to children as readily as they used to be, but kids' acuity has increased, she said. Having an EA in the classroom allows the teacher to deliver the curriculum to everyone in the room. 

"It's challenging when any one of our staff members are absent and we can't fill that absence. When we are short an educational assistant in a school or across the system, it's a challenge for the student, the classroom, and for the school as a whole," Canham said. 

Shortage a problem in classes

The shortage of EAs has long been a problem in schools, said Katie Dean, a London, Ont., parent whose 17-year-old is now on the brink of graduating high school, something she said wouldn't have been possible without the help of educational assistants. 

"It's been a struggle since junior kindergarten," Dean said. "The EAs that work with her were great, but there's definitely a lack of them." 

More recently, her daughter has been in a transition classroom, where she and other students get extra help. In Grade 10, there were four EAs for 10 students. This year, in Grade 12, there are two EAs for 12 students and her daughter isn't getting the help she needs.

The shortage of EAs has long been a problem in schools, says a parent whose 17-year-old has been helped immensely by them in the classroom. (David Donnelly/CBC)

"I have struggled to get her the help she needed from the time she was four years old. These people are invaluable to the development of kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks, but there's not enough of them," Dean said. 

King's University College is one of the schools working with the board to supply students in related fields to work on a temporary basis. 

"We want to work with the school boards to be able to engage our students in opportunities to build a career. These are good opportunities for entry points, because we have a disability studies program and other programs that aim towards working in the education system," said Joe Henry, King's dean of students.

"It's a good opportunity to get exposed to the field itself and to work with people of difference. You'll be exposed to people with visible and invisible disabilities and part of the opportunity is learning from the people who you serve and to see the diversity of the people we're meant to serve and support."

But the job appeal of being an EA has gone down recently, said Avey, who has been in the field for 23 years. 

"You could go to work 23 yeas ago and you'd get hit or kicked once a week or once a month. Now, we have EAs who have to wear full protective gear every day," she said. "You might be funded today but not tomorrow, so a lot of EAs work other jobs as well." 

However, Avey said, she's "thrilled" the school board is hiring casual EAs to take the burden off those who are working full time.