Letter: Understaffing, Underfunding

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letter to the editor

Dear Parents, Guardians, Staff and Catholic Stakeholders:

A letter addressed to the above group was sent home with all of the students enrolled in the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board a few days ago. Upon reading this letter I found that there were some points which could lead people to believe that the current job action of our Board’s support staff is to blame for the negative effects some of our students may or may not have experienced. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a few facts.

The following is completely factual and not in dispute:

The purpose of this letter is to update Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board families and staff on the status of schools and school activities during this period of labour negotiations. As you may know, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) representing education workers (Carestaff, Maintenance Staff, Clerical Staff, Educational Assistants and Early Childhood Educators) with the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board has decided to escalate “Work to Rule” job actions (withdrawal of services) in our schools. This is a provincial job action mandate affecting all schools across the province.

This labour disruption arises out of the current central negotiations process involving the Government of Ontario, the Council of Trustees’ Association (which includes the Association representing Catholic school boards – the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association) and CUPE. A full list of services being withdrawn is available on the CUPE Ontario website: http://cupe.on.ca/sectors/school-boards 

Please note that all of our schools remain open and academic programming continues to be delivered to our students. The Board’s senior administrative team is working together with principals and vice-principals to mitigate any negative impact on school operations.

It is the next sentence with which I take issue: “While we continue to focus on core programming and the safety and well-being of students, job actions may result in certain programs being cancelled or temporarily suspended”. The only reason our job action may result in the cancellation of student programs is because the current underfunding of education by the Provincial Government has made our schools and school boards dependent on our support staff to go above and beyond their job descriptions to fill in the gaps in services to our students. A perfect example of this is general yard supervision.

I was recently informed that one school had to “cancel intramurals which we ran during recesses for the past two years. Teachers would supervise this in the gym. In addition, we were starting an alternative games/reading/activity room for our students who don’t enjoy going outside (those who struggle socially). As a result we did not move forward with this either because we needed all teachers outside on supervision”. Let me make this perfectly clear: Special Education Assistants are hired to work with special needs students, not to do general yard supervision. We also have Early Years Assistants. Their job is to supervise JK/SK students during the lunch period.

Due to understaffing many of our Special Education Assistants are scheduled for general yard supervision during every non-instructional period during their work day. The problem with this is that while they are required to supervise a schoolyard full of students, they are also required to continue to supervise and support their special needs students. In my opinion, this has created an impossible situation for our EAs which has the potential to put our students in harm’s way.

This potential for danger can also be seen in the staffing of our Full Day Kindergarten programs. In many cases there is only one Early Years Assistant assigned to JK/SK classrooms of 30 or more three, four, and five year old students during their one hour lunch period. In this capacity they would be expected to assist students with getting out their lunch bags, opening containers, bottles, jars, etc., encouraging them to eat and monitoring those who refuse to eat, general clean-up of the area, getting them ready to go outside, and then supervising them as they play in the school yard. Anybody who has ever been responsible for more than one child at a time will appreciate how impossible this situation is!

The next paragraph in the original letter goes on to say: ‘CUPE is in a legal strike position and members may legally withdraw services. Principals and vice principals are enacting alternate plans in order to ensure the safety of students. Our first priority remains the safety of everyone in our schools and the provision of caring learning environments for all students and staff. We will continue to monitor and communicate with CUPE any work sanctions that may compromise student and/or staff safety.’

It is this last line that I take issue with. It makes it sound like the board needs to monitor support staff to ensure student safety. Again, let me make this perfectly clear; CUPE’s mandate, even during the current work to rule job action, is and always has been to ensure a healthy and safe learning environment for our students! The message to our members has always been to set aside the job action if there is any possibility that a student’s safety will be put at risk.

I can assure you, the last thing my members want to do is to continue this job action. They all want to get back to a sense of normalcy and labour peace. However, they also want to be recognized and supported in the vital role they play in the education of Ontario’s children and young adults. We have been fighting for this through our Unions for a long time, with limited success. It has become apparent to all of us that this is our only hope for change.

Sincerely,

Vicky Evans,
President, CUPE Local 4148