In The News

Low pay, uncertain hours, no sick leave. Education’s other workers face a return to the classroom

Joanne Laucius August 22, 2020 Originally featured in Ottawa Citizen

Francine Meledoro has been hit, kicked and bitten. Now she’s worried about invisible dangers.

Meldoro, an educational assistant at an east-end Catholic elementary school, works with children who have autism and behavioural challenges. It’s work she finds very satisfying, despite the dangers.

“I like to be able to see them reach their goals, whether it’s academic or learning to ride OC Transpo or read the flyers from grocery stores,” she said. “I love my little guys and seeing the smiles on their faces.”

But there are scars on the backs of her hand where she has been scratched. She often brings home visible reminders of the dangers of her job.

‘I’m worried about my own safety on a regular day. This is a whole other ball game,” she said of the return to school. “My kids are used to seeing marks on me. Now I may be bringing home something you can’t see.”

While the focus so far has been on teachers’ and parents’ concerns, there has been less attention on another part of the sector — the support workers whose pay grade is far below teachers.

The top salary for educational assistants is $43,000 a year after four years. Early childhood educators earn a top salary of $38,000, said Sherry Wallace, the president of CUPE 2357, which represents over 2,000 education workers ranging from library technicians to office administrators at the Ottawa Catholic School Board.

It’s not unusual for EAs and ECEs to have part-time jobs in group homes or day care, Wallace added. “Just for the additional income.”

Meldoro has worked as an educational assistant for about 13 years. Every year, she is laid off in June and re-hired in September — the same is true of the early childhood educators who work at the board — and she collects EI over the summer. This year she collected CERB.

Staying at home and waiting it out is not an option, she said.

“My husband can’t stay at home and I can’t stay at home. Financially, I need to go to work. My husband is a construction worker. He can’t take time off.”

Some education work is precarious work — temporary, poorly paid or insecure. Some students require medical support including diabetes testing, diaper-changing and toileting, and others with behavioural issues who spit, kick or throw desks when they’re in crisis, said Wallace. There are some students who don’t understand physical distancing and why it’s necessary to wear a mask.

In the pandemic world, the most precarious workers of all are those who are assigned to schools on a casual basis, she said. At her board, this is a pool of between 400 and 500 people.

“They could be going into multiple settings. And they don’t have sick leave.”

Meledoro’s life is a microcosm of the many fears and anxieties education workers have as they return to the classroom.

Many educational assistants have much more intimate contact with students than teachers do — they help students with eating and toileting, for example. Meledoro often guides a student by taking him or her by the hand. All of this will be difficult in the new world of physical distancing.

Meledoro has other concerns as well. Her mother, who cares for Meldoro’s six-year-old daughter before and after school, has a compromised immune system. Meledoro’s son, who is a year and half old, will be going to a home day care.

Meledoro has been careful to keep her social bubble small this summer. But, by her count, her family’s bubble will expand to about 90 people when her school, her daughter’s school, her son’s daycare and her husband’s work colleagues are all added together.

Occasional teachers are also weighing the dangers of returning to work.

“Part of me would really like to see human beings again. And another part of me thinks the classroom wouldn’t be the safest place,” said Susan Rab, who has been an occasional teacher off and on for 30 years.

Some occasional teachers are retired teachers who had a career and enjoy part-time work. Others are young graduates hoping occasional work will lead to a permanent job. While some occasional teachers get most of their work at one school or are on long-term contracts, one of the most serious concerns is about those who will be traveling to different schools, said Rab.

Job postings are made available to the approved occasional teacher pool through texts, emails and phone calls to qualified occasional teachers. If a teacher wants to accept a job, they click on it. Sometimes they don’t know where they will be going — or if they have a job — until morning.

“One of the difficulties for occasional teachers is that they have to make a conscious decision every day,” said Rab.

“This is precarious work,” David Wildman, who represents about 1,450 occasional teachers at the Ottawa unit of the Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Federation.

“You make a lot of money over the course of a week if you work. But you can’t spend it because you don’t know what will happen if you’re not working next week,” he said.

“If you have an HVAC system that doesn’t work properly and windows that don’t open and kids who come to school even if they are sick, then you’ll get sick. And what if you have to self-isolate for two weeks? Who’s going to pay for the groceries?”

Occasional teachers also face the same problems about physical distancing as regular teachers, said Wildman.

“You can’t comfort an upset child from the front of the classroom,” he said. “Behaviour will be more difficult to manage. It’s part of being a teacher, but with an added element of danger.”

Meledoro has been told she will be provided with PPE and three provincially-mandated training days before school starts when she will learn how to put on, take off, clean and discard PPE.

She considers herself lucky that the windows at her school open to allow fresh air inside. She has nothing but praise for how well her school board had kept her in the loop about new developments. She has confidence in her principal.

“Considering the circumstances, they have been doing their best,” she said.