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N.S. mom worries as school support workers poised to strike in Annapolis Valley

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Support workers poised to strike in Annapolis Valley
WATCH: Labour trouble could soon hit schools in the Annapolis Valley. About 600 early childhood educators and educational assistants are set to go on strike on Monday. One mother to a special needs son says while she supports the workers, keeping her 16-year-old child from school will be devastating. And she's voicing fears about how a strike would affect other families. Amber Fryday reports. – Oct 21, 2022

Over the last two years, Crystal Arscott has watched as her teenage son blossomed under the tutelage of his educational assistant.

“It’s amazing, the difference in him,” she told Global News.

“We couldn’t make it without them, as simple as that. We couldn’t make it without the EAs beside us.”

Arscott’s son, Robert, is a student at Avon View High School in Windsor, N.S. The 16-year-old has Down syndrome and Type 1 diabetes.

Robert’s educational assistant not only helps him with his reading, math and social skills, but also with his hobbies – sometimes taking him to play basketball with resource groups from other schools.

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“It gives him confidence,” Arscott said, smiling at her son. “Not to mention he’s a good basketball player.”

But beginning Monday, Robert – and other special needs students in the Annapolis Valley area – are set to lose access to their educational assistants.

Crystal Arscott with her son Robert, 16, a student at Avon View High School in Windsor. Amber Fryday/Global News

Members of NSGEU Local 73, representing staff at the Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education (AVRCE), are poised to go on strike Monday, with wages and pay disparity among the union’s top issues.

The local includes about 600 educational assistants, early childhood educators, student support workers, outreach workers, parent navigators, library personnel, child and youth practitioners, native student advisors, literacy support workers and student supervisors.

Arscott said especially after two years of the pandemic, having to keep her son home from school would be devastating.

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“They just missed so much time already with COVID, that it’s a sin for them to miss time over money,” she said. “Instead of being in class, and being productive and learning, they’re at home with not a lot to do.”

There’s also the fact that it will affect her own work. Arscott, who works as a continuing care assistant, said keeping her son home from school and juggling work would be a “bit chaotic.”

“There are a lot of people that depend on me showing up for work, because my job – very much like theirs – is caring for people every day,” she said. “If I have Robert at home, there’s a possibility I can’t work.”

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Educational assistants have made a tremendous difference in Robert’s life, she said, and they are more than deserving of a wage increase.

“If they don’t give EAs the raise they deserve, then our children are home and they’re lacking the education and friends. It’s just unfair,” said Arscott.

“Those EAs are not just there doing their job. They love them like family … I respect them, and I just feel like their job is not an easy job.”

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‘Very challenging’

Dave Jones, the regional executive director of education with AVRCE, said its pre-primary program has been cancelled as a result of the strike, and some students will be unable to attend school without support from educational assistants.

“This is very challenging,” he said. “We appreciate that labour disruption has a deep impact on students, families and employees, and the broader school community.”

Jones said schools will provide pre-primary students with at-home activities through the duration of the strike, and families of students who have direct EA support will have regular check-ins with their school.

It’s unclear what those check-ins would look like, but Jones said teachers will reach out to families to discuss it.

Jones said instructional support staff are “valued, respected employees,” and while he couldn’t comment on the status of the negotiations, he believes a “fair offer” was put on the table.

“It’s our ongoing goal to reach an agreement,” he said.

Crystal Arscott says EAs have helped her son tremendously and she wants to see them get a fair wage. Amber Fryday/Global News

But in an interview, NSGEU president Sandra Mullen said EAs and other school support staff are struggling with the cost of living and the latest offer wasn’t enough.

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“We’ve been at the table bargaining with the employer, with government on this for a long time, trying to reach a fair deal,” she said. “Our members spoke loud and clear last week that they rejected that offer.”

Mullen said one of the top issues was pay equity. She said support staff at AVRCE make “far less” than staff in other schools.

For instance, starting wages for entry-level educational assistants at the Halifax Regional Centre for Education is $16 to $17 per hour, whereas EAs in the AVRCE start at minimum wage.

“Folks who do the same job in all of our schools, from one end of the province to the other, deserve to be paid the same,” said Mullen.

She added that members understand the impact the strike will have on students and their families.

“None of the members affected here are taking this lightly at all,” she said. “They’re truly not happy because they do care for those students, and they realize the impact that this will have.

“The families support the work that these members do. 100 per cent. It’s government who needs to ensure that they’re paid the same across the province.”

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Meanwhile, Robert is hopeful the strike doesn’t last long so he can go back to doing what he loves – learning and making friends.

“I love EAs and I love school,” he said.

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