Work refusal continues at downtown school for students with special needs amid COVID-19 concerns
TORONTO -- Nearly two dozen support staff at a downtown school that serves students with developmental and physical disabilities are refusing to work for a second consecutive day due to concerns about their safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Toronto District School Board says that 22 educational assistants at Beverley School remain off the job today amid a myriad of health and safety concerns, including challenges they have faced in preventing students from removing their masks.
The board says that it has brought in administrators from nearby schools as a “temporary solution” and is actively working to address the workers concerns through ongoing conversations with their union.
“Right now to make sure that the kids are safe we have administrators from local schools who are here helping out,” TDSB spokesperson Sherry Schwartz-Maltz told reporters.
“For a more long- term solution we have a lot of the resources at the board - speech pathologists, behavioural therapists and health and safety – and all those additional central resources are being taped in to work with the kids and to work on the learning situations, the behavioural plans, to try to make the situation better.”
While in-person learning is suspended at most schools in the GTA because of the surge in COVID-19 cases, education continues in-person at some schools which cater to students with special needs.
The TDSB has confirmed that there have been a total of five positive COVID-19 cases at Beverly School, one involving a student, one involving a staff member and three involving bus drivers.
The board, however, says that all of those cases have been resolved and that there are not any active cases right now.
Nonetheless, the union that represents the educational assistants says that it has concerns over the Ford government’s refusal to tailor its health and safety policies to special education.
John Weatherup, who is the president of CUPE Local 4400, told reporters on Tuesday that his members have frequently had their masks ripped off while assisting students with special needs.
He said that while it is important to note that the students have disabilities and “are not doing anything wrong,” there is a need for new protocols to help protect the health and safety of everyone.
“There is a whole range of resources we have been suggesting and they (the ministry) have always treated it like all COVID is the same so the masks they wear are the same (as other schools), all the things they do are the same. They give them gowns and that sort of thing but if a child pees on your gown for lack of a better term you have to change it so then you need (more) staff because you can’t just walk away from a child with special needs,” he said.
Weatherup said that he believes many of the concerns identified by educational assistants can be addressed by additional staffing.
For example, he said that if a worker is escorting a student with a disability to the washroom, there should be another staff member on hand “to make sure the child can’t raise their hand” and remove the staff member’s mask.
“It is as simple as putting a child on a toiler or feeding when they don’t like you wearing a mask. You have to get close enough to do that but sometimes they just want to see your face and they are not doing it because they are trying to be vengeful or whatever. These are students that have behavioural issues that they have no control over,” he said
Speaking with reporters outside the school on Tuesday morning, Maltz said that she understands it is a “time of high anxiety” and that it is important that all staff feel “safe and secure.”
To that end, she said that conversations have been taking place all day to determine how to best address the workers concerns.
“We just need to listen and we need to find a solution together,” she said.