‘The last straw’: Parents of autistic children dismayed by CBE busing changes

File photo of an Alberta school bus.

Children with autism will be left behind after the Calgary Board of Education cut 70 per cent of its school bus attendant positions ahead of the school year, say parents worried about the change.

The CBE confirmed Friday it was

eliminating most of its school bus attendant jobs

, bringing the number of staff from last school year’s count of more than 230 to only 70 this year. The attendants work with special needs students on buses to ensure they make it safely to and from school.

“This is kind of the last straw for many families,” said Laura Lacavex Goussis, a family support worker with Autism Calgary who has spoken with parents impacted by the change.

“I can’t stress enough how important attendants are. We’re talking about kids who are really high-needs. Many of them are safety hazards for either themselves or the other students on the bus. They need someone to be able to calm them down, to remind them to stay seated.”

Lacavex Goussis said children with autism thrive with routine, and removing attendants will be like pulling the rug out from under their feet. She added that with new COVID-19 measures around mask use and social distancing, children with special needs require more attention, not less.

The CBE said Friday the change was being made to “align our service to similar levels that are offered by other metro school boards.” They said remaining attendants would stay on-staff to service some schools, including the Christine Meikle and Emily Follensbee schools, which both specialize in students with developmental disabilities.

For some parents, eliminated bus attendant positions coupled with other factors, like large class sizes and increased busing fees, has complicated the already difficult decision about whether to enrol children in in-person classes amid the pandemic.

Both of Jessica Travadi’s children were born with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic mutation that led to autism diagnoses. Her son is non-verbal and has severe behavioural issues. With only about a week until school is supposed to start, she still doesn’t know what she’s going to do this year.

“Right now I’m in a rut. I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s putting me in a position where I could back down and say I’m not going to put my kids in school, but then what am I going to do for work? There’s not really child care for kids with special needs either,” she said.

“This isn’t just us it’s going to affect. It’s a lot of other kids and families.”

According to the CBE, students who no longer have school bus attendants “will be supported through enhanced safety plans,” with the number of cuts not yet final as new registrations continue.

But Autism Calgary executive director Lyndon Parakin said the job cuts are part of wider systemic changes negatively impacting children with special needs and their families. He said the decisions could have long-term implications for families.

“Such a sudden change to routine, when autism itself means these students thrive on predictability and routine, will set students up for a much higher, elevated state of anxiety,” Parakin said.

“It’s quite a shock, and for some students, it will put them in a regressive state for months or even years as they try to get back to normal.”

Travadi said another difficult factor in her decision is that her son was moved schools without any consultation over the summer, entering a larger classroom that she worries may not be safe for either teachers or children.

She wants the CBE to work with families to ensure all students have the opportunity to go to school in a safe and supportive environment.

“It’s not right. These kids need to be a part of society as well,” Travadi said. “They need to be able to grow and thrive and go to school and get an education just like everyone else.”

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Twitter: @jasonfherring

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