Special Education professionals raise red flag

Children wearing face masks in school. (File photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / tomwang)

“I love my job,” read an email from an anonymous education assistant in Windsor-Essex. “But, this government has not taken our health and safety into consideration.”

That email is one of several that BlackburnNews.com has received in recent weeks expressing concern about safety protocols in place to protect the hundreds of teachers and support staff still going into schools each day to educate some of the most fragile students in the region.

The emails express concern for their colleagues, their own families, and “the most vulnerable population of students with the highest needs.”

At the Greater Essex County District School Board, Mario Spagnuolo with the Greater Essex Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario said as many as 70 teachers and 80 support staff are going into schools most of the public thinks are shuttered under a lockdown imposed to control the spread of COVID-19. His colleague at the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, Erin Roy, said another 50 are going into the high schools.

Darryl Fenick, the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association that represents elementary school teachers with the Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board, is not sure how many of his members are reporting for work.

“We’ve been trying to get that information from our board, but they have not provided that to us,” he said.

Joe Brannagan represents Catholic high school teachers. He said 100 per cent of their special education teachers are also attending school each day.

Teachers unions have called for a pause in in-school learning until educators have better protections against COVID-19 in their workplace. While school boards must provide teachers with face masks, face shields, and in some cases even gowns, Spaguolo said the protections have not changed since the start of September.

Since November, the number of cases of COVID-19 linked to the region’s schools have increased dramatically.

They want teachers and education assistants to have access to level 3 medical masks. Right now, they have level 1 masks. The unions also call for portable air purifiers in special education classrooms, plexiglass barriers where possible, rapid testing for the virus, and increased cleaning protocols.

While other students are currently doing their school work from home, the Ministry of Education has instructed school boards to continue in-school learning for those students who require one-on-one attention, including toileting.

“All of our principals have worked directly with the families of students with special needs to determine their level of need and to see if they could be accommodated through remote learning,” said Communications Coordinator Stephen Fields at WECDSB. “In those situations where it was deemed that they could not be accommodated at home, they were allowed to attend school.”

Kim Klyn is an occassional education assistant with the English Catholic school board. Her job requires her to work at multiple schools, sometimes at two in a day. Social distancing with her students is impossible, she said.

“We are almost in the same position with being in the personal space of our students, the same as a doctor, or a nurse, or a personal support worker is within the long-term care or medical establishments,” she told BlackburnNews.com. “We have the same fears.

Spagnuolo agrees.

“We would like to see measures that would be taken in the healthcare sector,” he explained. “These children are vulnerable. Some of them are medically fragile, and yet we’re going into an education system that virtually has not changed since September.”

Fenick is looking ahead to when Ontario’s Stay-At-Home order ends.

“I can’t speak for what the other classrooms are like, but our maximum classrooms, we’re pretty much double what the minister had said would be in place last June,” he said. “The voices of the people that are working with the students on a daily basis — everybody in the building, even administration, let’s keep everybody safe — and yet, this government, again and again, makes decisions at the last moment and does it without consultation.”