When EAs are out sick in Mission, some kids stay home

There aren't enough casual education assistants in Mission to cover absences and provide support for students who need full-time assistance. But the district doesn't know just how often kids need to stay home.

When education assistants are sick in Mission, sometimes kids who need full-time support are asked to stay home. 

Education assistants work with kids who need extra help in the classroom. A student may need an EA for a variety of reasons, ranging from ADHD and autism spectrum disorders to complex conditions that require caregivers with medical training.

But there aren’t enough EAs to go around and, specifically, there are not enough casual or temporary EAs to cover for the full-time assistants when they’re off work.

It’s now a regular occurrence for the district to tell parents to keep their children at home because of a lack of EA support, according to parents.

The Mission School District has confirmed that this year has seen an increase in the frequency of kids being told to stay home for a lack of support. But it also says it doesn’t keep data on the exact frequency.

A worsening problem

At the start of April, at least two students were asked to stay home from school in Mission. The district didn’t have enough casual EAs to cover six vacancies that week. 

“In past years this was a very rare occurrence,” a district representative said in an email. “Currently we are experiencing a shortage of casual EAs.”

EAs who are sick, at an appointment, or off work for any other reason are replaced the way teachers are: with on-call, or “casual,” substitutes. When a casual EA isn’t available in Mission, the principal of the school will shuffle EAs and other staff to “best support” the school. Some students can manage without full-time assistance, but most EA support in the district is dedicated to helping those students who, for safety or health reasons, cannot be in a classroom without one-on-one assistance. When there aren’t enough substitutes, those are the students who are asked to stay home.. 

“It is only when we are not able to reallocate the resources to ensure safety that we ask that for the child to stay home for the day,” the district said. “We only make this decision based on the safety of the child.”

The exclusion of students has been brought up repeatedly by advocates throughout the province. A lack of on-call EAs is one reason kids across the province haven’t been able to join their peers in classrooms, and in Mission it’s a growing concern.

The chair of Mission’s Parent Advisory Committee, Jacquelyn Wickham, said parents and school staff are both reporting that the problem was much worse this school year.

“This is a definite issue this year that they are seeing, [and] the result that we're seeing, and that we're very concerned with, is that students are not being able to attend school,” she said. “That should be a concern for everyone.”

The district is not the only entity deciding to keep students at home. Sometimes, Wickham said, a student is not asked to stay home but their parents will decide to keep them at home because they are concerned that a temporary EA won’t be found—or that, if they are found, that they won’t be trained to properly care for their child. Kids with complex conditions might need to be tube fed or assisted with complicated medication, which require specially-trained EAs. Kids whose parents choose to keep them home are being kept out of school by the shortage, too. 

The district said that it’s trying to rotate which students requiring full-time support are asked to stay home, so that one single student doesn’t bear the brunt of the shortage.

But keeping students home because schools can’t support them still has an effect, Wickham said. She worries that excluding students will change how those kids might see the value of school.

“Are they going to continue on a trajectory that's positive for middle school and high school? And what kind of impact does that have?” she said.

The long-term negative impact on the kids themselves isn’t Wickham’s only concern. Telling a student they aren’t welcome, even if the reason is good, sends a message, she said. And that message—that school might not be for everyone, all the time—reaches the affected students and their families, and beyond. 

“It sends a very clear message to them, but not just them, but also to their peers about their place in the school community and the community at large.”

No numbers

While parents and staff have been seeing the impact of the EA shortage for years, the district has started trying to fix the problem more this school year, Wickham said. 

But although the district knows how frequently it needs to replace sick EAs, it doesn’t seem to record or report how often the inability to find a casual EA leads to a school requiring one or more students to stay home that day. When The Current asked for such data, the district said it would take hours of work to collect and release that information.

Anecdotes from parents and staff report that the exclusion of students is now a regular occurrence that has gotten worse this year. Wickham says finding that number is going to be part of a lasting solution to the shortage. 

“One of the issues is being able to get actual data on the number of times that EA placement isn't happening,” she said.

The union representing EAs doesn’t collect that data, either. A BC non-profit collects annual information through a survey that relies on reported occurrences of exclusion every year. The statistics rely on the parents of kids who need support to report—which requires parents to first know about the survey and then have the time to do it. 


The Mission School District says it knows there is an ongoing shortage and is “actively” working on recruiting more casual EAs to fill gaps in the schedule. 

But qualified EAs, including those who want to work on a casual, on-call basis (where they get a call in the morning telling them where to be) don’t grow on trees. They’re paid hourly and, while the hourly wage can be decent—depending on experience and the district, usually between $20 and $30 an hour—the actual pay pales in comparison to other jobs with full-time hours. EAs are usually only paid for the hours of the school day, and aren’t paid for summer vacation, Christmas break, or spring break. Work BC says only 12% of EAs are employed full-time. 

Some districts, like Chilliwack, hire “non-certified” EAs to fill up the casual pool. There are EA training programs at colleges throughout the province but the schools and their graduates aren’t standardized and certified provincially the way teachers are. The province doesn’t require an EA to have any specific training. The Chilliwack School District looks for high school graduation and a year of post-secondary education, alongside experience working with special needs individuals, as an equivalent to an EA-training program. The hiring practice has lessened the shortage and Chilliwack officials say they have not had to ask any students to stay home.

Langley’s School District confirmed that, while it’s seen up to 77 EA absences in one day, they haven’t needed to send a student home yet. It is also trying to recruit casual education assistants. Abbotsford doesn’t currently have EA or casual EA jobs posted. 

Wickham has several suggestions to improve how EAs are hired and funded. She’s heard the stories of other parents and has lived several of them herself as a parent to a child with Downs Syndrome. She says she would like to see the district hire full-time substitute (or, what counts as full-time) EAs, and attach them to a school, so when an EA calls in sick, the same person fills in at the school every time. Wickham would also like to see changes to how funding is allocated, so students with multiple conditions that need support can get funding (and help) for both conditions, not just one. 

Training more EAs locally could help relieve the shortage, too. The University of the Fraser Valley is moving its education program to a new campus in Mission this summer, and the school is introducing a new education assistant program that will start in the city in fall 2025.

As Mission’s long-standing EA shortage increasingly affects kids and their education, Wickham says addressing the problem is vital. Asking kids to stay home affects not only the students themselves, but can erode the values of the public school system itself: that everyone should have access to education.

“It just comes down to having this value that everybody deserves to be at school, and that everyone's important.”

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