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Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

A few weeks ago, a teacher friend told me about an assignment that a student in her Grade 5 English class had handed in. The task was to write a scary Halloween story. The student wrote: “It was a boring school day and I wanted to die.”

For my friend, a committed teacher of 10 years, the statement is a symptom of the times. Every day, she is confronted with students whose needs she can’t begin to meet. Her ability to do her job – to teach – rests on the support of a dwindling army of educational assistants.

On Friday, the workers that keep Ontario’s education system afloat are scheduled to go on strike. They include educational assistants, special needs assistants, early childhood educators, custodians, librarians and administrators. Collectively, these people assist struggling students, teach English to new arrivals to Canada, apply Band-Aids to scraped knees, show students how to navigate the internet, assist disabled children in the bathroom, sweep floors and scrub toilets.

It’s not glamorous work, it’s done largely by women and it’s the lowest paid work in public education. But without it, there would be no education.

On average, the front-line education workers who are going on strike earn $39,000 a year. A living wage – the minimum income to meet basic needs – in Toronto, home to Canada’s largest school board, is $42,900. This explains why many of these education workers spend their evenings behind the till at Winners or Dollarama. They cannot live off their day jobs.

The 55,000 striking education workers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), are requesting a salary increase that would bring them into the realm of a living wage. It amounts to an 11.7-per-cent increase, which sounds like a lot until you consider that over the past decade, the 8.5-per-cent increase in these workers’ wages has been far outpaced by the 17.8-per-cent rise in inflation. In real terms, they have been taking, year over year, ever deeper wage cuts, falling further behind public-sector workers at all levels of government.

What’s the latest in CUPE and Doug Ford’s school fight in Ontario? Bill 28 and labour rights explained

Education Minister Stephen Lecce prefers not to speak in real terms. Defending his government’s beggarly offer – a 2.5-per-cent annual raise to workers making less than $43,000, and 1.5 per cent for those earning more – he glorifies the education workers’ pension and benefit program and claims that “equivalent workers” in other sectors – he cited manufacturing, finance and factories in an interview on CBC Metro Morning – are perfectly content with comparable wage levels. The comparison says a lot about our Minister of Education; for him, the business of education is not so very different from any other.

But it is. Take the job of the educational assistant – for whom there simply is no equivalent in a bank or factory. Many parents, like myself, grew up in an era when kids who were not cutting the mustard at school “failed”; likewise, special-needs students attended separate schools. The language has changed, and so have the times. In step with broader social trends and human rights legislation, the education system has moved to bring students of all needs and abilities together into the same classroom. The strategy is both laudable and ambitious, and its success rests entirely on the availability of qualified helpers.

In Ontario, those helpers – educational assistants – earn a starting salary around $15 an hour. If they stick around, they may one day make something in the high 20s. For that paltry sum, they help students whose challenges range from dyslexia through non-verbal autism, who may be screen-addicted, undernourished, traumatized, prone to violent outbursts or all of the above. For that paltry sum, they make it possible for other students to learn.

Perhaps this reality is too far removed from Mr. Lecce, who attended private school and now takes home a tidy $165,851 annually. As a friend of mine who worked her way up from educational assistant to principal in the Toronto District School Board says, often, the hardest working individuals in a school are the lowest paid.

But everyone has their limits and it’s no wonder, particularly after pandemic measures that have brutally affected student learning and mental health, that educational assistants are reaching theirs. In a survey conducted last March by the education advocacy group People for Education, 90 per cent of principals across Ontario identified staffing shortages as their primary challenge. Some school boards have lowered their criteria for educational assistants to accept students in any child-related program, no diploma or professional experience required.

When education workers are demoralized, underpaid or in short supply, the entire edifice begins to crumble. At my son’s school, in midtown Toronto, a homophobic slur against a teacher was covered with paper for a week before a custodian – there was only one for the first several weeks of school, compared with eight a generation ago – found the time to paint over it.

The Ford government is playing an old song when it pits itself as the guarantor of students’ best interests against money-grubbing education workers who are willing to jeopardize kids’ education by going on strike. It’s banking on the exasperation of pandemic-weary parents. But Mr. Lecce may be misreading the room when he tweets “100% of parents want their children in class.” What all parents really want are safe, functional schools where teachers can teach and students can learn.

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