Rainbow Board hires social worker to service Espanola-Manitoulin students

SUDBURY—The Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) has hired a social worker to service students in the Espanola and Manitoulin area with the board passing a motion in favour at a meeting last week. The only trustee with a dissenting vote was the Manitoulin trustee with the board.

“I think the board trustees’ motion recognizes that school boards need to include other things other than academia in their initiatives,” stated Norm Blaseg, director of education for the (RDSB).

“We have a wonderful group of trustees who support and recognize other agencies whose mandate includes these type of supports, but that we as a board have the opportunity to support our students and have the means to do so right now,” said Mr. Blaseg. “And the Ministry of Education has pinpointed well-being as being something boards need to focus on, along with the previous ones of achieving excellence, equity, public confidence; now well-being is on the radar as a provincial goal and the expectation from parents is that we have these supports in place.”

At its meeting last week, the RDSB voted in favour of a motion that, effective immediately, a social worker will be hired to service students in the Espanola and Manitoulin area. Currently, social workers are assigned core groups of schools. The RDSB currently has one worker driving to Manitoulin three times per week and costs related to time and transportation is prohibitive.

The board will hire another social worker to work in the Manitoulin and Espanola area for a total of five social workers employed by the board. It will also hire a mental health nurse and RDSB will provide $180,000 a year for these two new employees.

Mr. Blaseg said the new mental health nurse will fill a gap in the system in the form of helping students who have received addictions treatment transition back into the traditional school system.

Trustee Larry Killens, who represents the Manitoulin area, voted against both new employees being hired, not because he doesn’t think they’re needed, but because he feels the school board shouldn’t be filling these gaps. “In 2014 the Wynne government announced there would be severe funding cuts because of the debt the province is in,” he told the Recorder. “And the Minister of Education, Liz Sandals, announced that $50 million was being taken out of education funding. I’m not against social workers being hired to help students in our schools; we need them, no doubt.”

“But I’m saying in this case the CAS (Children’s Aid Society) has the mandate to be providing these services and providing the funds for this, not the school board,” said Mr. Killens.

Doreen Dewar, chair of the board, told the Recorder, “the Ministry of Education (MOE) established a mental health initiative about four years ago as part of a 10 year mental health initiative. One of the four areas the ministry is focussing in on in this report this year is “student well-being.”

“I just got back from an education conference that was attended by representatives of many public boards in the province,” said Ms. Dewar. “What I heard is that these boards are doing the same we are and are recognizing the need for student supports. Yes, mental health may not be part of our job as a school board, but when it takes in student well-being we need to take the steps to support students,” said Ms. Dewar.

“Our health lead is Amber Perry, and under her direction and nurses and workers, they are looking at prevention and intervention,” said Ms. Dewar. “All I’m trying to do is point out something one of our other trustees said, that we have to accept kids are not going to do well academically if they are having difficulties with personal mental health. We have to take responsibility for the well-being of our students.”

Part of the report presented to the board stated: “The board is committed to supporting students with mental health and addictions. Our three-year mental health strategy includes providing services to improve student’s mental well-being, including addressing symptoms of both mental health concerns and addiction problems. Although we have begun to implement supports to address students mental health need, providing services designed to target addiction concerns remains an area of need for our board.” The current board configuration includes a mental health lead, psychologist and four social workers servicing the board. Community Care Access Centre provides two mental health nurses, section 23 programs provided through various partnerships and direct and indirect intervention/programming.

Ms. Dewar noted, “this is not something new, we’ve been at it four years now. We have social workers now, and one is driving to Manitoulin Island three times a week, spending a lot of time and money in transportation, time spent not helping the students. So we had the opportunity to hire someone to service students in the Espanola and Manitoulin area, who will be there on the Island.”

“With the new personnel being hired and the current social and mental health workers in place it would work out to a $4 million expense per year for the board, funds that comes out of the classroom,” said Mr. Killens. “It would be nice if those agencies like CAS who are mandated to provide these services did so, so these monies could be used in the classroom.”

“The services being provided for Manitoulin Island and Espanola service is not as good as we feel it could be, and we found the finances and the personnel to tap into this. We had the opportunity to help our students and we grabbed it.”