Rainbow Board seeks clarity in accommodating refugee students

SUDBURY— School boards across the province have been networking and evaluating plans in the wake of Canada’s pledge to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end, but they are somewhat hampered by a lack of information on the specifics of the plans and what their role in that national endeavour will be.

“There are two streams to that,” noted Rainbow District School Board Director of Education Norm Blaseg. “First there are individuals who are sponsoring refugees and then there is the government sponsored group. We do not know if they are necessarily one and the same.”

If the sponsorships are private, the route is not as obvious, but Mr. Blaseg noted that there are many more resources in place at school boards and in specialized agencies than was the case during the period when Canadians mobilized on behalf of the Vietnamese refugees following the Viet Nam War.

Typically, he explained, the Ontario government would provide direction to the school boards “on how we can support the efforts.” This is particularly crucial for Ontario as not only has it already been determined that Ontario will be receiving 10,000 of the 25,000 Syrian refugees planned before the end of the year, but that Ontario may be enlisted as a holding centre for another 2,000 refugees that will eventually be going to other provinces when their preparation have been set in place.

In the absence of specific direction, the school boards across the province have not been idle, noted Mr. Blaseg. “There have been a number of discussions taking place between the school boards, OPSBA (Ontario Public School Boards’ Association) and our ministry (Ministry of Education),” he said. Those discussions have been taking place with “a sense of urgency” driven by current events.

Among the many questions that need to be addressed are not only those directly related to education and settlement of the refugee families, but also less traditional services that the school boards may be called upon to provide, for instance “will we be called upon to house them? There are a number of empty schools located across the province that may be called upon,” he said. “Maybe. That is something that we don’t know and we are trying to figure out.”

There are also questions that have to viewed in the “Northern” context. Today there are many specialized agencies located primarily in the south that have developed the kind of expertise that is not as available in Northern communities. “We will need to assess the kinds of services that the refugees will need,” he said. “Those include housing, health needs, English as a second language supports, as well as social workers. Many of the refugees have likely been exposed to serious trauma and there will be mental health issues that will need to be addressed.”

The RDSB personnel may well require training on particular sensitivities, as well as the children and teaching staff, in order to avoid triggers that may come up. “We want to be as humane as possible,” he said.

But, the education director noted again, there are many more supports and social services, both within the boards of education and society in general, than were in place when the last major wave of refugees were welcomed to our shores.

“There are agencies that actively engage with the refugees to assess their needs,” he said.

Nonetheless, the way forward will largely be a learning process for everyone and “will take some time.”

Many agencies will be engaged in the process, including the local District Services Boards, which will be playing a role.

“We have not been wasting time,” continued Mr. Blaseg. “We are currently working with other school boards, the DSB and the City of Greater Sudbury to make the transition smooth.”

Mr. Blaseg noted that, despite the challenges, the current refugee influx will be “a very exciting time. This will be a great humanitarian experience and we will be tapping people’s shoulders going forward.”