Classrooms across the province look similar to this one in Killam, Alta., with desks spread out after the introduction of COVID-19 measures like social distancing between desks.  PHOTO: LILY KENNEDY

Ashley Torpe’s most powerful memory from her career as an educational assistant (EA) is a simple one: the first time one of her students said her name. The boy had a learning disability, and Torpe had worked closely with him for months. But until February 2020, he referred to her simply as “teacher.” 

Torpe was at the playground when he turned to her and said, “You know I know your name, right?” It was this simple gesture that made he feel fulfilled. 

These kinds of connections with students make educational assistants an integral part of Alberta classrooms. But those positions are often vulnerable to budget cuts, something every school board in the province is familiar with.

Key role in the classroom

The governing United Conservative Party has put those school boards under an even greater financial strain – at a time when the pandemic has made educational assistants even more important.

Wing Li, the communications director for Support Our Students (SOS), describes the role of EAs as giving one-on-one attention and support to students who may need it.

“The kids [that] do have an EA in their class, you can see them going leaps and bounds [farther] than the kids that don’t have an EA to help them.”

Ashley Torpe

A 2018 thesis by a Minot State University student also found EAs play a major role in providing all students with equal and accessible education. 

In that study – which focused on the Saskatoon Public School Board – one EA was quoted as saying “educational assistants play a vital role not only in the education of special needs students, but also the students falling through the cracks in the educational system.” 

Torpe, who works in an elementary school in Wainwright, Alta., has also seen how vital the work of EAs are.

“The kids [that] do have an EA in their class, you can see them going leaps and bounds [farther] than the kids that don’t have an EA to help them.”

Budget cuts in 2020 left many classrooms without the educational assistants teachers often rely on.  PHOTO: LEGACY IMAGES

However, despite how essential teaching assistants can be, school boards sometimes don’t have the money to pay for them.

Typically, the majority of their budget will go towards staffing – whether it’s teachers or support staff, such as EAs and custodians.

According to Alberta Teachers Association president Jason Schilling, each board will have its own differences in terms of how it allocates that money. 

Meaning that even at the best of times, schools don’t always get the number of EAs they need or want. Torpe says that in her own school teachers are often told, “We don’t have the funds, we don’t have it in the budget, we can’t afford to bring another EA on.”

Schilling says situations where EAs are lost, can be “detrimental to [students] learning.”

Effects of COVID-19 

But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 brought a whole new level of challenge for educators.

In a press conference on March 28, 2020, the Alberta government announced they would temporarily funnel $128 million away from educational funding to aid in COVID-19 safety measures. 

This resulted in about 25,000 education workers being laid off, including the majority of EAs, sparking outcry against this shift in priorities by the government. 

The EAs that remain are having to do more with less.

Protective measures

Vicki Child, an EA working in a rural school in Killam, Alta. says she usually works with small groups of students for individualized learning. But now, her one-on-one time with students is limited due to the required social distancing measures and limits on how many students she can work with at a time.

The introduction of these COVID-19 safety measures, such as continual sanitization and mask-wearing, have left many EAs worrying these measures will cause disruptions to learning – which could have long lasting effects on all students.

Torpe explains that for younger students, safety measures for in-person classes such as staggering recesses and hallway times can make it challenging for them to refocus on classes.

In 2018, Your Alberta released this video, “”Rethinking the role of educational assistants” outlining the importance of educational assistants in student learning. VIDEO: YOURALBERTA.

“It’s interrupted their learning a lot […] there’s a whole 20 minutes where they’re not learning, and they could have been.”

Child also noticed this issue. She suggests that these measures eat into time that should be spent working with students. 

“I’m continually moving around and assisting students around the classroom, which means I’m frequently applying hand sanitizer,” says Child.

Juggling acts and education gaps

The shuffling between in-person and online classes presents another challenge.

At the beginning of the school year, teachers and EAs had to juggle students as they shifted between learning platforms.

This created gaps in education equality, which EAs often had to fill by working with teachers to provide paper resources and adjusted learning plans. 

Filling these gaps has proven to be an added strain for EAs as they work to maintain the quality of education for every student – not only for the students they work closely with.

Schilling says this effort from EAs comes in many forms, including making sure “kids have paper packages to back them up” if they don’t have a reliable internet connection. Despite these efforts, there will still be gaps in the classroom because of fewer EAs.

As a result, Li says, “You’re going to see this sort of catch-up mentality. There’s going to be added pressure in the coming school year to catch back up to the people who were able to keep up […] what we’re going to see is widening inequality.”

More money needed

Both Li and Schilling agree the government can help by increasing funding. 

“We want our schools to be open, but we want them to be safe, and we need to put the funding into the re-entry plan. But they [the government] weren’t doing that,” says Schilling. 

Li agrees.

“I think that obviously the funding needs to be restored and it actually needs to be increased from the restoration because we were already behind for 2019.”

Schilling adds the teacher’s association also pushed for required reductions in class sizes which would allow for better social distancing – which in turn, would have required that all the EAs to be hired back. 

In response to these requests for funding, Justin Marshall, a spokesperson from Alberta’s education ministry said, “School boards can also use the federal COVID-19 funds to hire additional staff.”

Ultimately, Schilling maintains that the redirection of funding was “a shock after shock after a shock in one school year […] and it put everybody in a really bad situation and scrambling to find ways to make things work.”

This story appears in our March/April print issue. You can find the Calgary Journal at newsstands across the city or you can check out the digital version here.