‘Why me?’: Hamilton educational assistants prepare to return to classrooms after April break — many without a vaccine

·3 min read

For many of the special needs students that Marisa McIntyre supports, physical distancing just isn’t possible.

“They spit, they try to grab for your mask to take it off,” said the Queen Victoria Elementary School educational assistant. “I’m constantly washing my hands or changing my gloves.”

Some of McIntyre’s students will be learning remotely come Monday. But others — students with special needs “who cannot be accommodated through remote learning,” according to the province — will continue to learn in physical classrooms.

“Our members are being divided over this once again because some are working from home and the others have to go in,” said Susan Lucek, president of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE) Local 527, which mainly represents educational assistants. “Why me? Why am I being put at risk?”

The Ministry of Education says it is up to school boards, in collaboration with parents, to decide which students with special needs will learn in-person — the same approach as was taken in the winter.

“A key recommendation of experts in the special education community was to ensure the most vulnerable kids who cannot participate in remote learning, can continue to benefit from routine and consistency in-class, coupled with the continuation of strong health and safety measures,” Ministry of Education spokesperson Caitlin Clark said in an email to The Spectator.

Hamilton’s public board says those eligible include “students in self-contained classes, as well as students with pervasive special education needs.” The Catholic board, which does not have self-contained special needs classrooms, says students with “multiple and complex special needs” are eligible.

When schools were closed to the majority of students earlier this year, approximately 340 students — with more than 330 staff supporting them — continued in person at 44 Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board schools. At the Catholic board, there were about 230 learners and 360 educators, including teachers, support staff and principals, in physical school buildings.

HWDSB chair Dawn Danko said the board acknowledges that is “very stressful” for educators, who are going to into situations where students often can’t wear PPE or follow protocols.

“We are hearing loud and clear from our special education workers ... that they’re concerned,” she said.

Special education workers, which include EAs and teachers, are eligible for vaccines as of April 12.

In an email to The Spectator, Hamilton public health spokesperson James Berry said the province and school boards are working “to identify these individuals and provide them with further instructions” on booking.

But many special education workers that don’t fit another criteria — such as age — in the vaccine rollout, won’t get their first vaccine before Monday.

“A lot of us can’t get appointments until May,” said Amie Giuliano, an educational assistant in a kindergarten classroom at Franklin Road Elementary School. “And even then, you have to wait two weeks for the vaccine to be effective.”

Public health said it does not yet have data showing how many special needs educators have registered for or received a vaccine.

Giuliano said she’s grateful to be supporting her Franklin Road Elementary School kindergarten students remotely as of Monday, but knows that EAs can be redeployed to support in-person learning as demand requires, or to cover for absences.

“I would be forced to take, probably, an unpaid leave of absence,” she said, adding that she has two school-aged kids of her own. “I can’t leave my children home alone.”

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator