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Children not safe, supported at understaffed Salmo Elementary: parents

Letter to district says school doesn’t have enough education assistants to meet student needs
A letter signed by 70 parents of children who attend Salmo Elementary say the school needs more education assistants and clerical staff. Photo: Tyler Harper

Parents are criticizing School District 8 for not adequately staffing Salmo Elementary School, which they say is putting students at risk and impacting classrooms.

A letter addressed to superintendent Trish Smillie from the school’s parent advisory committee signed by 70 parents says the kindergarten to Grade 6 school doesn’t have enough education assistants (EAs) or consistent clerical support.

Salmo Elementary currently has three EAs plus one who is part-time. Parents say that is two fewer than the last academic year.

In classrooms, education assistants can be employed under a teacher’s direction in a variety of roles, including supporting individual students with diverse needs, or for playground supervision.

PAC chair Sheri Pawlyshyn said the lack of EAs has led to young children regularly missing buses, being left alone on the playground and not receiving classroom supports.

In one instance, Pawlyshyn said a student with diverse needs left the schoolground unsupervised. They were later found in a nearby forested area.

“Our kids are wandering away, they’re getting lost, they’re not accounted for. Kids are hurting each other, kids are getting hurt, this is unacceptable.”

The lack of available clerical staff meanwhile also leaves parents with no one to call in case of emergencies. Pawlyshyn said bus drivers have held students in their vehicles waiting for staff to come pick them up only to have no one answer at the school.

Pleas for more staffing have gone unanswered by the district, Pawlyshyn said.

“They’ve been telling us, ‘Oh, sorry, the hiring process has been really difficult because nobody’s applying for the job.’ And we said, well, what are you doing in the meantime? Because you might not have anybody applying but you still have children in need.”

Salmo Elementary has 136 students, but privacy rules mean it is unclear how many have been designated for support funding from the Ministry of Education.

Smillie believes Salmo Elementary is a safe school, but acknowledged it has unfilled EA positions and that the clerical role has been inconsistently staffed. One of the EA openings she said has recently been interviewed for, and she expects it will be filled soon.

Recruitment is an issue for every district, Smillie said, and finding EAs for Salmo has been a challenge.

“In Salmo, we have a difficult time finding support staff. In Nelson, we don’t have a difficult time finding EA staff. So although we match the general trend in the province, we have unique kind of recruitment issues from community to community.”

The number of students who qualify for special education funding also doesn’t necessarily lead to more support staff for any one school.

Students designated for funding are split into three levels of categories. These, for example, might include children with autism spectrum disorder, physically dependencies, or serious mental illness.

But the funding generated by one student isn’t actually used to support that child. Instead it is transferred to the school district’s operating funds.

Students are then assessed and provided what’s called an Individual Education Plan that shows what each child needs to be successful in the classroom. That might include Indigenous support or occupational therapy, and, for some, it could be regular assistance from an EA.

Smillie said Salmo Elementary currently has enough EAs to support students with diverse needs throughout the entire day in classrooms.

“I would say that we can do a better job when we have more staff and when we’re fully allocated, and so that’s what we’re hoping for in the next little while. We can say very much that our students are safely attending school.”

Nelson District Teachers’ Association president Carla Wilson said Salmo Elementary teachers have told her they are struggling to support students who require EAs but are spread out in different classrooms. That in turn is also leading to less attention given to the rest of the teacher’s class.

The ministry stipulates classroom teachers are in charge of their students including those with special needs, but Wilson said teachers aren’t trained as behavioural interventionists.

“When we don’t have support for students who are dysregulated it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to meet their needs and protect the safety of all children in our care.”

The situation, Wilson said, is not unique to Salmo Elementary. Teachers across the district have also expressed concerns about the current number of EAs.

“The number of EAs in most schools have declined. Students with complex needs have increased and in some individual education programs the classroom teacher is listed as the temporary support with no duration indicated and no permanent support for the child listed.”

The collective bargaining agreement between SD8 and CUPE 748, which represents EAs, prevents teachers from taking open union jobs, but Smillie said the district can temporarily reassign teachers to fill in for an EA if there are safety concerns.

But she doesn’t believe there is any reason for parents to be worried about the safety of their children at Salmo Elementary.

In October the school announced it would start assigning two teachers to assist families when children were dropped off and picked up. Smillie also said she had reviewed the school’s playground supervision plans and found no issues.

That’s no comfort to Pawlyshyn, who said incidents with children are now common at the school.

“Somebody has to do something.”

Tyler Harper

About the Author: Tyler Harper

I’m editor-reporter at the Nelson Star, where I’ve worked since 2015.
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