What happens to a school when it loses education workers? It’s worse than you might think.

By Laura Walton

We never appreciate how important some jobs are until they – and the people who do them – are gone.

That’s what’s about to happen in Ontario’s public schools. 

As schools start to feel the impact of the Ford government’s cuts to education, consider what happens when schools lose not only teachers, but education workers – custodians, education assistants, school secretaries, library workers, computer technicians, maintenance workers, social workers, child and youth workers, speech language pathologists – the people who make schools work.

These workers are among the lowest paid in the education system; many of them are only employed for ten months of the year. But even a basic exercise in joined-up thinking reveals some pretty serious consequences when these workers start to disappear from our schools.

Let’s say a school suffers a budget cut and loses a half-time custodian. Can’t the remaining custodian just work a little faster, maybe cut a few corners? No. One of a custodian’s daily tasks is testing the school’s drinking water – not a step you can skip when the health of hundreds of children is at stake. Or when there aren’t enough custodians to clean all the classrooms to the established standards of health and safety, a school has to close rooms and squeeze more children into the remaining spaces. The result? Crowded classrooms that are too noisy for students to concentrate. Close quarters that facilitate the transmission of illnesses from pupil to pupil. Unpleasant conditions that hinder learning.

Education assistants are already in short supply in Ontario classrooms. So what happens when there are fewer of them and the remaining EAs are stretched even further? Obviously, children with special needs don’t get enough support or attention; their boredom turns into frustration and their disruptive behaviours increase. There’s a greater likelihood of classroom violence and suddenly the entire classroom is at risk. Aggressive behaviour also spills out into the rest of the school too and everyone feels the effects.

School libraries are often the places that children learn a love of reading; when they’re a little older, it’s where they develop independent research skills. But what happens when library technicians are laid off, or have to split their work day between two ore more schools? Then there’s no library access for students before or after school or over lunch. The hours for e-learning are reduced. Students have less access to computers and online research. Students without adequate computer resources and internet access at home suffer most.

Computer technicians should be considered essential players in the Ford government’s plans to introduce more e-learning in classrooms. But no – their departments are being decimated and the board’s IT workers face layoffs alongside their colleagues in school libraries and board offices.  Twenty-first century learning? Not a priority in Ontario schools.

The schoolsecretary is more than a welcoming face in the office and the “school mum” when children are ill or hurt. She’s also the first line of defence for school safety. She lets parents know when their children aren’t in class; she controls the buzzer on the school door and decides who does or doesn’t get in. Yet the government seems to think her deep knowledge of the school, its students, families and staff can be replaced by casual or occasional personnel – or in some schools, by Grade 8 students filling in at the office over the lunch hour.  

Then there are maintenance workers, who make schools safe, comfortable places to learn and work. They’re responsible for the very fabric of the school building and for keeping everything in good repair. Cutting maintenance workers is the worst kind of false economy and virtually guarantees that small, inexpensive repairs in schools will be put off until they become major, costly fixes.

Education workers are hardworking people at the core of a high-quality education system. Theyaren’t used to blowing their own horns about how important their jobs are. Lucky for us, they’re also ferociously protective of our public education system and are used to advocating on behalf of the students, schools, families and communities they serve. And someday we’ll thank them. 

Laura Walton is an education assistant and a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). She is president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents 55,000 education workers in public, Catholic, French and English school boards in Ontario.

Laura Walton, education assistant and president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OBSCU).

Laura Walton, education assistant and president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OBSCU).