An Education Assistant presented to the School District 69 (Qualicum) school board as a delegation on Tuesday, June 27, to discuss difficulties EAs are having with pay, hours and more. — File photo

Students first, EA’s second: SD 69

Education Assistant calls out Qualicum school district on pay, work hours

Local school trustees were given a look into the lives of the education assistants they employ on June 27.

Julie Fowler, corresponding secretary with the local CUPE chapter and an education assistant at Ballenas Secondary School, painted a frustrating picture of her job, where she said EA postings with 20-hour work weeks are on the rise in the district, leaving some people below the poverty line.

In addition to working overtime, which is paid only with time-in-lieu, and driving students in personal vehicles without information on proper procedures or understanding of the necessary insurance, SD69 EAs are having a tough time, said Fowler, who at times struggled to address trustees at the June 27 SD69 school board meeting as a delegation.

While SD69 is looking into some of Fowler’s concerns, assistant superintendant Gillian Wilson said many of them are due to a lack of communication on proper procedures, or the realities of the job. When it comes to 20-hour positions, board chair Eve Flynn said she doesn’t think that’s likely to change.

“EA positions have traditionally been in our district 20, 25 hours, 27 hours,” she said, adding that is typical throughout the province. “It’s based around the needs of kids. And it is not a full-time job. It is a part-time job.”

EAs work both in and outside of regular classes, sometimes supporting students who are able to function in mainstream classes but need some help maintaining attention or with reading and/or other subjects. They may also work one-on-one with students with developmental or behavioural issues who cannot function in mainstream classes, said Fowler.

That can mean teaching students skills such as how to greet people, how to read calendars and basic jobs skills, or even just working on emotional regulation, she told The NEWS.

EAs deal with students with a very broad range of issues, and support is sometimes lacking, said Fowler, adding she’s had several bad experiences with kids she’s worked with.

The 20-hour work week is another stressor, with EAs often finding themselves working through breaks, or staying late to wait with kids who cannot be left alone, or driving them places without knowing the proper procedure, she said.

“The bus is late 10 minutes because the kid had a previous pickup go sideways and now there’s an extra 10 minutes before they get on the bus. Some kids go their own speed. You can’t hurry them, and there is no wiggle room at all to allow for those kinds of things,” Fowler said as an example.

“So that wait comes down to people sucking it up and some people feel, ‘OK well that’s part of the job,’ but it’s one more stressor on a person who has limited ability to work outside the school if they have children… if you’re expected at your job 20 minutes after you’re supposed to be done at (your first) job, but that job regularly goes funny, your chances of keeping your extra job are not as great.”

EAs make about $21,500 a year when working 20 hour weeks, said Fowler, so that second job can be pretty important.

When asked about pay for EAs, Wilson said, “our wages for education assistants are actually one of the highest in the province.”

As for the length of the work week, Wilson said, it’s a reflection of the budget and the needs of students, which just doesn’t equal a full-time job.

Overtime, on the other hand, has to be dealt with through scheduling and with approval, not based on the EAs’ own decision, she said. But, if they find themselves consistently working when they aren’t supposed to, they can work with school staff to adjust their schedule.

When it comes to driving kids in personal vehicles, there are proper procedures that must be followed, said Wilson, and the district is looking to communicate those to school administrators and EAs.

Asked whether there is anything the school board can do to help EAs that are having a difficult time working for SD69, Wilson said, “My job is to look after kids. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but our job is to look after what the needs of our children are, and so we look at that first… as I empathize with people that might want more than 20 hours, it’s about what support do our children need, and given a limited budget, we can’t have everything that we want.”

Flynn said she felt Fowler’s delegation was heartfelt, and that the board has asked SD69 staff to look into some of her concerns, but that EA hours are unlikely to change.

Fowler said she feels part of the problem is the Ministry of Education’s funding model itself, but she nonetheless plans to return to speak with the school board again as a delegation in August in the hopes of fostering better communication between the board and CUPE.