B.C. students, families and educators are adjusting to a different school life environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most students are learning at home. But some children with diverse abilities and students whose parents are essential service workers have greater needs.
For B.C.’s education assistants (EAs), the COVID-19 measures have compelled them to find creative and compassionate ways to support students either remotely or in person.
At D.P. Todd Secondary school in Prince George, education assistants are connecting with students, many of whom have diverse needs and abilities. They connect through online group chats and social-emotional check-ins. The EAs support students’ learning, including reading to them over the phone.
“A lot of our students rely on these check-ins,” said Caroline Parker, an EA at D.P. Todd. “When we are in class, you can see their body language change when they’ve had an opportunity to share what was on their mind, either by being extremely proud of an accomplishment or just letting go of a little bit of stress. This is still even more important today to maintain. They need to know that while so many doors of opportunity are closed right now due to social distancing, that we are still here and do care.”
EAs at D.P. Todd are also connecting with classroom teachers to support them in making content more accessible for students who may need an extra layer of support as they learn from home. This might mean recording videos of teachers reading a short story or breaking down a math problem.
“Our goal is to make sure that all students who were receiving support in the classroom continue to have access to support virtually,” said Rebecca Lund, a support teacher at D.P. Todd, “and that we are supporting teachers to ensure that their continuity of learning is accessible and inclusive to all of our learners.”
Parents of students with complex needs have always known the important connection their children have with their EAs. But in these challenging times, staying in contact with EAs is proving to be invaluable to help students continue their learning and establish routines.
“My son’s two EAs have ensured they have stayed connected virtually,” said Stacy Cockrell, whose son is in kindergarten in Coquitlam. “It has been so astounding, the amount of effort they have put in to ensure he is still learning, engaged and also has some sort of connection with them. He lights up when he hears their voices.”
Hillary Thompson, a parent in Vancouver, is noticing the positive impact her seven-year-old daughter’s EA is making on her family, with regular online meetings.
“It has helped her, and us, feel included at school and motivated to keep learning,” Thompson said. “To be successful, schools and families need to work as a team to navigate this new landscape. For many students with disabilities, educational assistants are a vital part of that team.”
In other school districts, EAs are taking on roles unique to the COVID-19 crisis and supervising children in schools, while their parents are on the front lines.
“As we all know, there are many people in our community doing extraordinary things to achieve a greater good during these challenging and uncertain times,” said Andrea Robertson, an EA at Victoria’s Marigold Elementary school, who is working to provide care and learning opportunities for children of essential service workers. “I feel very proud that I am able to help our Tier 1 health-care providers by providing some support that is helpful for them and our community.”
Another example of EAs taking on new responsibilities is in the preparation and delivery of nutritious food to families whose children would normally have access to meal programs at schools.
Nearly a dozen EAs in the Comox Valley are packing food hampers that will provide nutritious meals to 200 local families during the pandemic. It’s about 11 kilograms (25 pounds) of food in each delivery.
“I have truly been impressed by the stories of CUPE members in the K-12 system and how they’re stepping up in these difficult and strange times to make schools safe and inclusive, even at a distance,” said Paul Faoro, president of CUPE BC.
Education assistants are vital in school communities and their work will continue and evolve throughout the pandemic. The Ministry of Education is working with all 60 school districts to balance the needs of families, students and communities, and finding solutions to challenges that nobody has faced before.