School specialists in ongoing battle over union spot spend summer running virtual camps
HRCE says response has been 'incredible,' but union says programs aren't beneficial
Many school specialists at the centre of an ongoing court battle regarding their spot in the teachers union are spending their summer running virtual camps to help students before the fall.
In the eyes of the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, the workshops have been a huge success — but the Nova Scotia Teachers Union argues that these programs are of "very little material benefit."
The virtual workshops have been held throughout July and run until the end of August. They are open for all students in grades 2 to 8.
Topics include things like teamwork, dealing with stress, making friends and returning to school after months at home.
"The response has been incredible," said Jenny-Kate Hadley, co-ordinator of student services for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education.
Hadley said they have averaged 175 students a week. There are multiple workshops in a day and she said almost every session has been at capacity, which varies depending on the grade level.
"We were able to reach a lot of different children with all areas from all areas of our region, which with a small summer staff, we haven't been able to reach that many children before," she said. "So that was really exciting for us."
'It's basically a Zoom meeting'
Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said the idea of virtual camp programs "sounds lovely" in theory, but he believes "it's basically a Zoom meeting with kids."
On Wednesday, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court granted the province's Education Department a stay on implementing an arbitrator's ruling from 2019 — which would put 60 school psychologists, speech language pathologists and social workers in the union until a judicial review can take place in October.
The union and the province have been fighting over the specialists for roughly two years.
Education Minister Zach Churchill has said previously that the department wants to ensure students have access to special services throughout the summer.
However, Wozney said the other 200-some specialists are also in a precarious spot, as any change in their job including moving to another location or going on maternity leave, would remove them from their union position.
Wozney said the argument of offering the same services during the summer months is not what is actually happening in practice.
He said he's heard from the specialists outside of the union and said they are afraid to speak up for fear of repercussions from their employer.
"They were volun-told. They were not consulted, they didn't participate in the development of what was happening. So this was sort of foisted on them," Wozney said.
"There's really very little high-impact work being done in the summer."
Violet MacLeod, spokesperson for the Education Department, said the specialists are adding to SchoolsPlus programs in the summer months. SchoolsPlus aims to provide mental health and academic supports to students and families.
MacLeod said the speech language pathologists and psychologists have added to these programs by providing assessment, consultation, and direct service to individuals and small groups.
"We know that our children need additional help from last year. That's why these supports have been enhanced to meet our kids' needs by offering programs and services through a mix of virtual and in-person delivery following COVID-19 public health guidelines," MacLeod said.
"These programs are an important part of many students' summer providing year-long programs and services because we know that the needs of families and students don't stop for the summer."
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Hadley, the co-ordinator of student services for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, said the focus of the workshops was to connect students across the region, develop pro-social behaviours that can translate back into the classroom and have fun doing it.
"With children having been home and isolated from their friends for a number of months, we thought maybe if we did a workshop model that might be a fun and engaging way to have families and students decide to participate," she said.
Hadley said many parents have said in feedback forms that it was comforting for their kids to see that other children in the province had the same worries around returning to school in the pandemic.
Summer staff also offered four weeks of in-person sessions at eight different schools, along with the virtual workshops, Hadley said.
Split days for some staff
The programs are being run by child and youth care practitioners, speech language pathologists, social workers, counsellors and school psychologists.
Hadley said the speech language pathologists and psychologists are splitting their days. They do workshops for one half of the day and work individually with students for the other part of the day.
Hadley said social workers and counsellors with SchoolsPlus were also able to offer some in-person services to families over the summer.
Wozney said he hopes the judicial review this fall will result in the specialists going back into the union, but adds that may not be the end of the line.
"Even if we win, we have no guarantee that the government will comply with the decision of the court," he said.
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