Windsor·Updated

Some support staff feel anxious, 'disrespected' as Ontario schools reopen for students with disabilities

While the vast majority of students and staff will be learning online for at least two weeks, Krista MacDonald shoulders angst and stress as she walks through the doors of her Windsor, Ont., high school to help students with disabilities.

Local school boards haven't received provincial shipment of N95 masks, air filters

An educational assistant for high school students with disabilities, Krista MacDonald of Riverside Secondary School in Windsor, Ont., questions her safety in school as the highly transmissible COVID-19 Omicron variant spreads in the community. (Jason Viau/CBC)

While the vast majority of students and staff will be learning online for at least two weeks, Krista MacDonald shoulders angst and stress as she walks through the doors of her high school to help students with disabilities in the classroom.

MacDonald, an educational assistant at Riverside Secondary School in Windsor, Ont., said many of the students she assists cannot wear masks or follow social distancing protocols. Although she's wearing layers of personal protective equipment, she said it's not enough to shield her from feeling unsafe.

"This tsunami-like virus is getting everybody and it doesn't make us exempt from it," said MacDonald. "And that's the biggest part, is that they're urging people to be cautious and do whatever you can to stay home, but they're saying, 'Hey you know what, it's safe for you.'

We have a lot to bear on our shoulders and I think that stress is difficult for a lot of people.- Krista MacDonald, educational assistant

"We're left with that anxiety and that guilt of having to be so very, very cautious to make sure we're not spreading it to our families, and that we're not spreading it to these students. We have a lot to bear on our shoulders and I think that stress is difficult for a lot of people." 

MacDonald is among several staff members in a class that teaches and cares for roughly seven high school students with disabilities. In addition to activities and programming, she said, helping them eat and use the bathroom are examples of when they may come into contact with bodily fluids.

"I feel a bit disrespected to be honest. It's a sense of a lack of fairness that we are putting ourselves at risk and everyone else is working from the safety of their home," said MacDonald. "If it's not safe for mainstream students, why is it safe for us?"

Mom says in-person class for son a necessity 

For Jen Hennin, the benefits of in-person learning for her son outweigh the risks of COVID-19.

Edwin, 8, has autism and requires assistance at school. Hennin said his verbal skills are similar to a child who is two or three years old.

"This is a meaningful part of his life and this is what makes his day worthwhile," said Hennin, adding a solid routine is important for people with autism.

Jen Hennin says her eight-year-old son Edwin thrives with in-person learning and struggles with virtual school. (Jen Hennin)

After seeing the progress Edwin made last year during in-person classes, Hennin doesn't want to see him regress.

"He blossomed a lot. We found a big spike in communication.

The family tried virtual school for Edwin for a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, but realized it wouldn't work. He became frustrated and overstimulated, Hennin said.

"He had had enough and he was on the floor, having a meltdown and started banging his head off our ceramic tile floor. I said, you know what — we're all done," she said.

Local boards waiting on provincial PPE, filters

The Ontario government recently announced it will provide N95 masks to school staff and deploy 3,000 more high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units.

However, the Greater Essex County District School Board told CBC News that those masks from the province haven't arrived. In the meantime, administration went out and purchased the masks on their own. A spokesperson also said all special education classrooms have HEPA filters.

Some local school boards aren't sure when they'll receive a provincial shipment of three-layered cloth masks for students with disabilities who are learning in person. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, which resumes in-person learning for some students with disabilities on Friday, said it too hasn't received any N95 masks from the government, and they're expected to arrive this week.

But it's unclear when the Catholic board will receive those additional HEPA filters or three-ply cloth masks for students, a spokesperson said.

Support staff should get hazard pay, union rep says

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation Education Support Staff unit said if the province feels schools are unsafe and shuts the doors for most people, then all students and staff "should be treated equally."

"The anxiety among my membership is very high right now," said union president Tyler Campbell.

He represents roughly 900 members, who include educational assistants, early childhood educators, and child and youth workers.

Tyler Campbell, president of the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation Education Support Staff unit, says there's 'anxiety' among his membership. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Since many support staff are required to provide in-person learning, he said they should be earning hazard pay from the government. However, Campbell said that hasn't happened throughout the pandemic.

Educational staff teaching in person should also have access to rapid tests and be prioritized for booster shots, Campbell said.

For MacDonald, she feels stuck in a grey area being required to work in person while most aren't in the education sector.

"We understand the importance of accommodation, but at what risk?" said MacDonald.

In the interest of safety for both students and staff, she said, online learning for students with disabilities is a realistic option. Although not ideal, MacDonald remembers "in spurts it was quite successful" when everyone was online at one point during the pandemic.

"They were engaged, they were laughing. We had visuals, they had visuals at home ... and they had iPads with programming."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Viau is a video journalist, TV host and radio newsreader at CBC Windsor. He was born in North Bay, but has lived in Windsor for most of his life. Since graduating from St. Clair College, he's worked in print, TV and radio. Email him at jason.viau@cbc.ca

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