Children with disabilities told to stay home from school during Annapolis Valley strike

Ashley Corkum is concerned about the implications of her child being kept out of school during the school support worker strike.  (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Ashley Corkum is concerned about the implications of her child being kept out of school during the school support worker strike. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

Every morning before school, Ashley Corkum gets her two children ready and sends them out the door together to Dr. Arthur Hines Elementary in Summerville, N.S.

Things have been different this week.

Corkum's seven-year-old son, Mack, is staying home while his sister goes to school.

Mack has autism spectrum disorder. While the workers who support him throughout the day are on strike, he and other students from the Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education who have disabilities and health conditions are not allowed to go to school.

"And any day of disparity with these kids really is heartbreaking," Corkum said. "It's absolutely heartbreaking to have to explain to them as the school bus drives by why they can't go."

Corkum is worried staying home with no social interaction will set her son back.

"He does receive full support in school from a wonderful group of resource workers and teaching assistants," she said. "His routine with these folks is critical to his development. Not just his learning, but his overall development in the world. And it's concerning."

This week, Corkum filed a complaint with Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, alleging Mack's human rights are being violated.

Submitted by Ashley Corkum
Submitted by Ashley Corkum

Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) Local 70, representing staff at South Shore Regional Centre for Education, and Local 73, which represents AVRCE staff, had been at the bargaining table for almost a year before voting to strike last week.

Local 73 went on strike on Oct. 23 and Local 70 joined them on Oct. 24.

Both bargaining units include a variety of school staff, like early childhood educators, educational assistants, administrative assistants and tech support. Local 73 has more than 600 members and Local 70 has 142 staff members.

The South Shore centre says that all students are in school, despite the strike.

But it's a different story for students in the Annapolis Valley.

"Some students are not able to be in school without direct support from an educational assistant," said AVRCE spokesperson Kristen Loyst. "In most cases, this is related to safety or personal care support. Schools are checking in regularly with these students and their families during this labour disruption."

Parents concerned for human rights 

Jenna Whitney is concerned that her five-year-old son, Gus, who has autism spectrum disorder, won't have the same access to education as other children.

"If this goes on for any length of time, that is a human rights violation," Whitney said. "Any child has the right to education and going to school, so that is being kind of taken away, and his sister having that right and him not having that right ... it kind of pulls at my heartstrings."

Submitted by Jenna Whitney
Submitted by Jenna Whitney

Since Gus has been kept home from Gaspereau Valley Elementary School, Whitney says her husband has had to take time off work without pay. Her family is losing money, but more importantly, her son is losing the time he spent working on communication and social skills at school.

Whitney said it has been "mentally exhausting" trying to balance work and caring for Gus, while also trying to go through the work being sent home by his teachers.

Whitney said this feels much different than when all students were studying at home due to COVID because some students are being singled out this time around.

Submitted by Jenna Whitney
Submitted by Jenna Whitney

Legal experts agree that the situation is concerning.

"I think there potentially are some legal and human rights issues," said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University. "One of which, of course, is that one of the principles of inclusive education and the guarantees of human rights and equality is that every child should have equal access to education, regardless of disabilities."

One of MacKay's main areas of research is human rights law, and he says the Annapolis Valley centre has an obligation to accommodate and provide meaningful access to education for all students.

This may mean different things for different students based on their unique needs and circumstances.

"The burden should be on those school authorities to demonstrate that they're doing everything reasonable to accommodate these students up to the point of undue hardship," MacKay said.

When CBC News asked AVRCE if different accommodations are being made for each child, and what those accommodations look like, a spokesperson would not provide details.

"Schools are also working to maximize learning time at school for many students who typically would receive EA support, based on their specific needs," Loyst said.

Negative effects of missing school

Gordon Porter, the director of Inclusive Education Canada, has worked on developing policy with provincial governments, and has been chair of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission for 10 years.

"Any time that a child with a special need or disability is not able to go to school with his or her peers, and the others are going to school and particular children are not, there is substantial opportunities lost and effects that are negative," Porter said.

Porter said he sees instances of children with disabilities being excluded from meaningful access to education across the country.

He said individual parents are often left to challenge these issues and try to get legal recourse through human rights commissions or through the courts, which can be difficult and costly.

Submitted by Ashley Corkum
Submitted by Ashley Corkum

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission said it is aware of this matter and has received related inquiries, but a spokesperson said he couldn't discuss specifics.

"Access to education is protected under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act, and discrimination based on an individual's disability is prohibited," spokesperson Jeff Overmars said in an email.

No more negotiations planned

Minister of Labour Relations Allan MacMaster said in an interview Tuesday that there are no plans to take action to order school support staff back to work.

He also said there are no talks planned at this time between NSGEU and the regional centres for education.

"We believe in the collective bargaining process," MacMaster said.

Parents hope the negotiations can continue and the strike can end swiftly, so their children can be back in school with their educational assistants.

"They're like family," Corkum said. "You know, anybody who's with your child for half of their day, essentially, and watches them grow from a young age and watches them thrive and learn and have moments of joy ... Of course they feel love for your child."