Classroom conditions and inclusion are hot topics in the ongoing bargaining between the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union (NSTU) and the province but teachers aren't the only ones struggling.
Some Teachers Assistants (TAs), also known as Education Program Assistants, say they're stretched thin and don't have the right resources to do their jobs.
"The TAs are very supportive of the teachers because we are in the same conditions," said Selena Verge, a TA who has been working in Queens for almost a decade.
TAs don't evaluate students or do lesson planning, however they provide personal care to students with disabilities, help with behavioural issues and assist with program support when directed by teachers. Although most aren't supposed to help in an academic sense, they often do.
Verge works at Dr. John C. Wickwire Academy, and currently covers two students who are in separate classrooms so she splits her time between them.
"There was no allotment so they could both have their own TA," she said. "I'm between the two classes jumping back and forth trying to manage them both."
The number of TAs hired in a school falls on the principals, who request TAs from the school board after students are screened, assessed, and determined to need one.
But conditions in the classroom and the level of support staff available varies across the province. And unlike teachers, who have one union and negotiate directly with the province, each school board has a contract with a union local that encompasses contracts for TAs, among other school employees.
Every contract for these employees in the province has expired, some two years ago, others nearly three years ago.
The South Shore Regional School Board and Tri-County School Board are served by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Annapolis Valley Regional School Board, Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial, and Chignecto-Central School Board are served by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU). Cape Breton-Victoria School Board, Halifax Regional School Board and Strait Regional School Board are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
Although the guidelines for who qualifies as a TA are provincial, the pay scales vary from contract to contract.
Grant Dart, the Nova Scotia school board coordinator for CUPE, says they've mostly managed to keep pay and other benefits the same school board to school board. But Nicole McKim, employee relations officer with NSGEU, says they are still trying to get all of their employees on par.
"There are variances across the boards we represent and we're aware of them but we strive for parity because we believe that the job is the job is the job, regardless of where you live in the province," said McKim.
All of the TAs who spoke to LighthouseNOW said they access Employment Insurance in the summer to make ends meet. Most who work on the South Shore make less than $25,000 a year, while some TAs elsewhere in the province make less. TAs in the Halifax Regional Municipality make the most at over $35,000 a year.
Annette Wyer, a newly retired TA who worked in the Bridgewater area for 13 years, says both teachers and TAs are struggling in the classroom.
Wyer said she was injured last May while working with a student with severe physical disabilities. After that, she chose not to return to work this fall.
"Face punches, biting, and stuff and my body reacted to it, I just couldn't cope," she said.
There has been plenty of talk about the education system's inclusion policies. In order to accommodate students of various levels or disabilities, teachers often create separate curricula for several different students called Individual Program Plans.
"The goal of inclusive schooling is to facilitate the membership, participation, and learning of all students in school programs and activities," reads Nova Scotia's special education policy.
Wyer said often she was working with up to seven students with special needs, all needing attention at some point during a class. This is frustrating for the students themselves, and others in the class who feel their class time is being disrupted.
She'd like to see special classes included or re-instated that help teach junior and senior high students life skills they'll need as adults.
"Inclusion isn't the problem, full inclusion is the problem," she said.
McKim believes more TAs in the classroom could help address some of the classroom conditions.
"I don't know if that will be the outcome but it certainly doesn't hurt that that seems to be what NSTU is calling for," she said.
A tentative agreement between the province and NSTU includes the creation of a commission to examine the status of inclusion education in Nova Scotia. The commission would be comprised of one expert in the field of inclusion education appointed by the Education Department, an expert appointed by NSTU and an independent chair.
"Sometimes proper support for [a] student means having a TA ... so at this point what teachers are looking for is the actual supports that meet the individual needs their students require and right now they're not seeing that," said Liette Doucet, president of NSTU.
Doucet says school boards need to assess and consult with teachers themselves to determine what students need for assistance. On top of that, she says the union would like to see more money given to school boards for student supports in the form of more teachers, specialists, and if needed, TAs.
Doucet says while her membership believes in inclusion, they also want to look at how inclusion is working.
"We've been looking at the department to look at inclusion and a review of the policy and that has not happened," she said.
The NSTU membership is set to vote on the tentative agreement on February 8.
Jackie Swaine, president of SEIU Local 2 which represents TAs in SSRSB, told LighthouseNOW in an emailed statement that she hopes their local will also be consulted when the commission is created.
"These are some the same struggles as support staff face in the classrooms. If consultations happen with the commission this would be another opportune time to speak out about classroom conditions," she said.
Mary Porter, a retired TA who subs in Queens, agrees.
"We know [the students]. We have them 6.5 hours a day," she said.
Full disclosure: Brittany Wentzell's mother is a Teacher's Assistant at Liverpool Regional High School. She didn't interview her for this story.