Friday, June 2, 2023

Striking Halifax-area school support workers seek answers from premier

Halifax-area school support workers are worried about casual employees covering their roles during the strike.

They say no one should have to cross the picket line to help fill in the gaps in care in Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) schools amid the call for better wages.

They’re also concerned for the students who rely on their expertise.

Robert Bray has been working as an educational program assistant (EPA) for nearly forty years and says they help students by earning their trust over time.

He was on the picket lines in Halifax on Tuesday.

“The people they are bringing in are inexperienced, they aren’t known to the kids,” Bray says. “We know our students, we love them, and that relationship is key to their success.”

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Christina Millward, also an EPA, agrees there’s no substitute for experience.

“These children have many backgrounds: may it be a special need, whether it be a trauma background, the homes that they come from,” Millward explains. “For a stranger to walk in that can be unsettling.”

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Halifax school support workers strike, calling for higher wages

She points to simple gestures that can mean the world to students.

“I have kids who I visit first thing in the morning, and I have one kid who I take a cookie to every day,” says Millward. “I’m not there so he’s not getting a cookie. I know it’s a silly little thing but it hurts my heart that he’s not getting that cookie.”

Her husband is also in the profession, away from his students during the strike.

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“I’ve already heard from a teacher of the class he’s in,” recalls Millward. “There’s a kid there who actually asked, ‘Is Mr. Ben not here because of something I did?’”

Another EPA, Kayleigh Smith, says like many support workers she’s driven by her loved ones.

“It’s life circumstances that have brought us here,” Smith says. “I do this job because I have a child who is on the spectrum. Raising him has taught me how to work with children, along with education.”

EPA Kayleigh Smith holds a sign that says “Honk if you think Houston needs a detention.”

Skye Bryden-Blom/Global News

She doesn’t expect casual workers will cross the line but has told her son to be prepared.

“If a sub does come in I have told him to politely say ‘No, I’m not going to be accepting your help today,’ because he needs to know he’s fighting for himself too,” says Smith.

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Parent Heather Langley has joined workers on the picket line to call for better wages and to help bring them back to the classroom.

Her daughter Lucy can’t go to class without an EPA. Last week, she shared her concerns with Global News on the first day of the job action.

She says after nearly a week, it’s taking a toll.

“This morning I walked by (Lucy’s) school and I burst into tears,” she reflects. “This is supposed to be a safe space for her and she isn’t allowed to go there. It’s hard to put into words what that feels like.”

She says Lucy misses her friends and her routine. Her behavior has also gotten worse, with more hitting and pinching.

Langley says her daughter deserves an education just like any other kid.

Heather Langley and her daughter Lucy stand with EPA Robert Bray on the picket lines amid the school support worker strike.

Skye Bryden-Blom/Global News

The president of the union representing striking workers says he’s concerned.

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“CUPE school support staff provide specialized education and care that can’t be duplicated by untrained casual employees,” says CUPE Local 5047 President Chris Melanson. “The support that we provide is based on relationships of trust that are built painstakingly over time. There’s no substitute for that.”

Communications Officer Lindsey Bunin says the HRCE continues to work closely with schools on solutions to ensure the greatest number of students can attend school safely during the job action.

“HRCE communicated with casual employees (Monday) to ensure they were aware that they could continue to work in schools during the job action,” says Bunin in a statement. “Casual employees, who can backfill a variety of different roles, help HRCE schools to continue to operate safely.”

Meantime, striking workers also searched for answers from Premier Tim Houston on Monday. They sought him out as he was visiting a Lower Sackville cafe to call for a better wage and to question him amid the strike.

The workers also expressed concerns for kids who are without their support — and called on him to bring back the pre-primary program.

Houston says the province met many of the union’s demands and told workers the seven other regions in the province, as well as the French school board, accepted the deal.

“This stuff is all at the table and I’m not at the table,” Houston says. “I certainly have great respect for what you do and the service you provide.”

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Voices rang out from the crowd,  interrupting the premier to demand: “Well then show it! Show the respect.”

Parent and pre-primary teacher Carrie Peverill questioned the premier on the experiences of impacted children.

“I just told him my son comes home every day crying because he doesn’t have his EPA with him,” says Peverill. “I get texts from his teachers saying he isn’t functioning and he’s having meltdowns.”

The group formed a picket line, marching across the exit to the cafe parking lot with signs in hand for several minutes to prevent the premier from driving away.

&copy 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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