SURREY — After Surrey’s school district recently revealed a huge shortage of on-call teachers, the union representing education assistants say the situation is far worse for them.
On Nov. 22nd alone, 101 education assistant (EA) positions went unfilled in Surrey when staff were off sick or otherwise absent, CUPE 728 president Ryan Groundwater told the Surrey Now-Leader.
“The number of EA positions not filled grew from 44 in September to almost 800 in October,” said Groundwater, who represents the union representing 4,000 education support staff in Surrey, including 1,500 education assistants.
“And this month, we’ve already hit 700 EA positions not filled, with another nine school days to go.”
But it’s not just Surrey, Groundwater said.
“This is province-wide. It’s an epidemic.”
Groundwater said the shortfall of education assistants means some cover five or six students at a time.
“Under these conditions, an EA may not physically be able to pay close enough attention to each student to catch behaviour before it escalates into a problem,” he said. “They are not able to give each student the attention needed.”
Groundwater blames the former Liberal government due to 16 years of “chronic” underfunding.
“We have to hold the former government accountable,” he said. “It led to these shortages… We have a more progressive government now but it will take time.”
Groundwater said the solution could lie in how EAs are paid.
“Currently full-time EAs in high schools work 32 hours and those in elementary schools work only 30 hours each week,” he explained. “By providing more hours for EAs so that they could earn a living wage, we would attract and retain more EAs in our system. Addressing incidences of violence in classrooms, of which EAs take the brunt, would also help draw more people into the field.”
Finally, he said he is “optimistic” there will be new funding in the NDP’s B.C. budget in February.
The union’s vice president Marcey Campbell said she’s seen first-hand how the shortage affects children in need.
“I’ve seen so many kids that are basically left alone when their EAs are being pulled or not replaced. I’ve seen kids that have, unfortunately, sat in front of a tablet for a few hours because there isn’t that support for them,” she told the Now-Leader.
Campbell explained EAs support children with behaviour concerns, medical concerns, toileting or mobility concerns, children with disabilities like autism and ADHD and “even typical kids that sometimes just need a little bit of extra help are going unserviced.”
Campbell said while teacher shortages are often in the news, EAs tend to take a back seat.
“We’ve always kind of been on the back burner. That’s why we’re in this horrendous situation.”
The Now-Leader has asked the Surrey school district for comment.