Red Deer education assistant fears toll of budget cuts

258 educational assistants to be laid off at Red Deer Public Schools

A Red Deer educational assistant who will be laid off in two months worries for families with special needs children already feeling the strain of COVID-19.

“It’s difficult for families to get help right now for respite care. Now, you take away their support at school. There are really angry parents,” said Crystal Howell, who has been an educational assistant for Red Deer Public Schools for nine years.

“Educational assistants are just as essential as teachers are right now in education, and we always have been.

“Our biggest motto is, ‘You can’t spell team without EA.’ We’re highly valued and have our own skill set that teachers don’t have and that’s how we work together.”

On Saturday, the provincial government announced a $128-million temporary funding cut to education.

Staff such as educational assistants, substitute teachers and bus drivers were deemed not to be needed while schools switch to online learning. The saving are to be used to support the province’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

At Red Deer Public, funding was reduced by $1.45 million and 258 educational assistants will be laid off June 1.

Substitute teachers had no more assignments effective March 31, and contracted bus services were suspended for the remainder of the school year.

Howell said the school district has stepped up to provide full benefits and pension payments.

“They have had our backs from the beginning of this.”

But she said educational assistants fear that government funding may not be restored.

The district said that because of cost savings achieved through reduced operations within its facilities, layoffs for educational assistants were deferred from May 1 to June 1 to allow staff to maintain supports to students learning from home.

Howell said educational assistants have been part of online learning from the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis to support the most vulnerable students.

“We’re doing daily check-in. We’re there for them.”

But soon, that connection and support will be lost, and students will face unfamiliar homework without their educational assistant who has been by their side each school day, she said.

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In an effort to show support for educators and others in the community providing important services, Howell and her high school daughter, Paris Perez, drove around Red Deer for a few hours on Wednesday hanging up blue paper thank-you hearts on trees outside public and Catholic schools.

“There’s just a lot of tears and a lot of sadness around this. I just wanted to commemorate educators and let them know they’re important and they’re essential. I hope it makes someone smile,” Howell said.

About 100 hearts now flutter in the cold April wind. Hearts also went up at grocery stores, and charities such as Central Alberta Humane Society and The Mustard Seed, which are helping people get through the pandemic.



szielinski@reddeeradvocate.com

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