Cuts to EPAs shut out children with disabilities from school, says concerned parent

Click to play video: 'Family says shuffling programming assistants creating unnecessary chaos' Family says shuffling programming assistants creating unnecessary chaos
EPA cuts concern parents of students with disabilities in Halifax – Oct 5, 2020

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education says there are no cuts being made to educational program assistants or EPAs this year, but Global News has confirmed that several have seen their contracts terminated.

Amy Spurway said she was shocked to find out last week that two educational program assistants were cut from Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth and moved to another school.

Read more: Questions raised about role of specialists in some regional centres for education during pandemic

Spurway’s twin daughters are both autistic and require more hands-on support while attending high school, and the concerned parent is now questioning why HRCE would pull the EPA support so early into a school year that coincides with a pandemic.

“We should be building extra capacity into our school learning centre right now and not reducing it at all,” said Spurway.

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“Kids with disabilities and their families have been completely cut out of any conversation with regards to that (COVID-19) plan.”

There are always staffing changes made in September when it comes to support positions in schools like EPAs, says HRCE communications coordinator Doug Hadley, who adds that staff and resources need to go where the students are.

“We make adjustments throughout the year but we tend to see it occur with much more frequency in September,” said Hadley.

“But we make minor adjustments accordingly.”

Hadley says HRCE has a student services team that addresses issues around population changes in schools across the region and they work with principals, staff and families to assure these specialized support services are in the right place.

“We appreciate that families get very much attached to a program assistant or a teacher or someone who is meeting the needs of their children,” said Hadley.

“But what we need to keep in mind is that our team of professionals, who are making these types of decisions, have to look at the needs of the entire system.”

Click to play video: 'One-on-one with Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill' One-on-one with Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill
One-on-one with Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill – Jun 16, 2020

Spurway says there should be no cuts or layoffs to educational support workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and if anything believes students with special education needs require more even more support.

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“I would venture to say that every kid with a disability or that every kid with special needs right now has higher support needs in some way shape or form than they had last year,” said Spurway.

“We haven’t been asked what our needs are, we’re an afterthought.”

Global News is protecting the identity of an EPA who says she was awarded a full-time position just days before the school year began, only to find out a month later that she was being laid off but said she could go on the supply list if she wished.

“I was laid off, I lost my benefits, paying into my pension and all those things,” said the EPA.  “This was the start of a good opportunity for myself and my two children and that was just taken away from me.”

The EPA calls the cuts to staff “unfounded” at this time and leaves the remaining educational assistants overburdened.

“EPAs are stretched so thin and now to hear that they are cutting back, and they are cutting back and cutting back, it’s just really hard to see,” she said.

HRCE couldn’t say how many parents are keeping their children home — but confirmed it’s happening.

That’s a concern for Autism n Nova Scotia executive director Cynthia Carroll who questions what will happen is the students who are being kept home decide to return to the class in the fall or winter, will the schools have the proper supports be in place at that time?

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“There’s always ratios in all the schools for specialists or resources such as TA’s (teaching assistants) and EPA’s,” said Carroll.  “They are adjusted annually, we do know that and we know the policies and procedures around that. But we also know that we are in unprecedented times right now and so we need flexibility in those policies and procedures.”

Read more: Parents, educators rally in Halifax seeking clarity on Nova Scotia’s back-to-school plan

Spurway says she understands why some parents are keeping their children home at this time, and blames HRCE and the province’s department of education for not laying out a clearer and defined back to school plan.

Spurway says she’s been sending her daughters back to school part-time basis early on but planned on sending both of her daughters back to school full-time this month.

“Our kids are absolutely not getting what they rightfully deserve from our education system with this plan,” says Spurway. “And now these cuts that are happening are really rubbing salt into the wounds.”

When it comes to inclusion, the education system has taken a major step back says Spurway, and the COVID-19 return to school plan has only further shut out special needs children from taking part in the school system.

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