A North Surrey mom says she’s been beside herself all summer, not knowing if her son’s education assistant from last year would be allowed to continue working with him when school starts up again.
Tamsyn Angelini just got word this past weekend that she’s been granted “continuity” for her son Raphael’s EA – but that approval took months.
Angelini told the Now-Leader she first applied this past February to keep the same EA for her son, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder and is heading into Grade 5 at Bear Creek Elementary.
She accused the district of using “delay tactics” and described the process as “traumatic.”
“It’s pretty much ruined the summer for me. I’ve tried to keep most of the stress away from the kids as much as possible,” she said last week, prior to learning her EA request had been granted.
Angelina noted her family is just one of many in Surrey who are fighting to keep the same special needs workers for their children.
“That’s the worst part. It’s not just me,” she said. “It seems they’re systemically making a process rigorous for parents who are already tasked with their kids challenges, and deal with meltdowns and shutdowns and whatever comes with kids’ special needs, they’re trying to wear us down until we have nothing left to fight.”
Angelini called it a “broken system.”
After first sending her request in February, Angelini said she followed up with Superintendent Jordan Tinney’s office on June 24 and when she didn’t hear back, filed a Section 11 Notice of Appeal, but she said that appeal was “held in abeyance” pending a final decision.
Then on July 12, she said she was informed her continuity request had been denied. Angelini said she wrote back indicating she wished to proceed with her appeal. Following that, she heard back that a decision would be made Aug. 22 and that she’d receive written materials on Aug. 20, to which she’d have 24 hours to file a response ahead of the meeting.
But, she said that date would have been past a final job posting meeting for support workers.
Then, this past weekened, she got word that the EA in question had been offered the position.
“I got an email from our principal saying that the posting had been offered to my EA. The posting was offered to her with the understanding that the district has no intention of ‘topping up’ her hours to full time work with another child that only needs five hours or less per week,” Angelini told the Now-Leader on Monday morning. “According to our principal, our EA has taken the posting with my son. That is a measure of how much she cares about my son and how much she wants to continue working with him.”
Angelini said she wanted the same EA to remain with her child because they saw tremendous success last year soon after the two began working together.
“By late October, early November, she had instructional control. They were sending home work he wasn’t finishing in the classroom often. And it started to peter off in late October and early November. At least this year if he has the same EA, he’ll have one point where he can focus on the consistency,” she explained.
Angelini also expressed concern over what behaviours her son could exhibit if a new EA was ultimately introduced.
“He’s not what I’d call a bolter, but he does elope. If you’re dealing with multiple children and have to stop and deal with the another child, and you let go of his hand, he’ll wander away. If you don’t notice, he’ll wander away. He needs that one-on-one support for a good part of the day,” she stressed. “Once instructional control is in place, all that person has to do is say ‘hey, come back here,’ and he will. He won’t listen to just anyone. I don’t want the danger, I really don’t want him to wander off from school.”
And, she said the EA she fought to keep has also been trained with Raphael’s home team.
While she’s been successful in her application – just weeks before school returns – she said children and families don’t deserve to go through this year after year.
“I’m not just fighting for my kid. I’m fighting for every kid that comes after. I have another kid in kindergarten and he’s going to need me on his side. Then there’s grandkids – are we going to still deal with this in the next generation? It needs to stop.”
Angelini said to her knowledge there are 52 parents fighting for continuity for their children, and that there are roughly 1,900 Surrey EAs.
“It’s such a minuscule amount,” she said. “We’re not asking for the moon.”
Surrey school district spokesman Doug Strachan did not respond by press time to a request to confirm the number of continuity requests this school year, the total granted, and the total number of EAs.
But he said “at any time during the year, the district will seek to accommodate EA requests, so it is still possible requests would be met.”
Strachan noted that the district has an arrangement with the local union to “set aside seniority in certain cases to support students.” He said it’s believed Surrey is the only B.C. district that has a “formal Letter of Understanding that achieves this.”
“It’s important to keep in mind one of the goals in supporting students with special needs is to help them be able to comfortably relate, interact and ultimately learn from a variety of adults,” Strachan said. “It is a concrete sign of progress when this is achieved. There can be occasions when a specific adult—an EA for example—has what is called ‘instructional control’ with a student; the student won’t respond to the same instructional methods, techniques and tasks if the student was instructed by a different person. Continuity may help as a short term measure, but it is not the goal, nor can it be achieved permanently.”
Meantime, other Surrey parents have recently been granted continuity for the upcoming year.
After months of frustration and worry, South Surrey parent Lama Alsaafin said last week that she was “flying with happiness,” following news that her autistic son will be supported by the same education assistant who forged a positive connection with him earlier this year.
But her elation was also tempered by lingering anger over a process she too described as traumatic; that of ensuring their special-needs kids’ right to education isn’t trampled by a system they feel favours seniority.
“The school district served the collective agreement more (than their legal duty to accommodate students’ needs),” Alsaafin told Black Press Media. “They caused unnecessary stress and trauma for parents who already had their plate full.”
Like Angelini, Alsaafin had been waiting for an answer since February.
Alsaafin said the news is only a temporary reprieve from the stress, she said.
“In March, we need to reapply again,” Alsaafin said. “So, it’s a matter of time. It’s just a short while where we can breathe out, and then we need to go over and over with the same struggle.”
Alsaafin was among parents who spoke to Black Press Media in June about challenges with continuity of support workers and consistency in support hours.
Alsaafin’s son, known as ‘Moodi’ to his classmates at Semiahmoo Trail Secondary, had connected with his EA just after Christmas, after what Alsaafin described as “a revolving door” of support workers – six in the first four months of the 2018-2019 school year, triggered by “multiple medical leaves” taken by the 11-year-old’s applied behavioural analysis (ABA) support worker.
She still has questions around what transpired with her son’s case, including why the posting for his support-worker position was apparently removed from the selection made available to new and low-seniority EAs during a posting meeting Tuesday (Aug. 13). She’s sure it wasn’t because a decision on continuity had been made.
“If it was granted (before the meeting), they would’ve called the EA before the meeting and tell her you need to take yourself out of the posting meeting,” Alsaafin said. “In our case, they didn’t get a call. She was pushed to get a different position, and she did.
“They pushed her to choose another posting, and today, the position is open… so it’s unfair process for the (other) kiddo.”
Education advocate and Surrey mom Cindy Dalglish took to Facebook to comment on the situation.
“I absolutely feel for the families and the EAs subject to this process,” wrote Dalglish. “It’s not working for anyone.”