Edm. Journal: Program that provides speech-language, occupational therapy in schools ends Sept. 1, services to be the schools’ responsibility

The following article was originally published by the Edmonton Journal on June 27, 2020. You can view the original article here.

In-school health services such as speech pathology and occupational therapy will be the responsibility of Alberta school districts as of Sept. 1.

The Regional Collaborative Service Delivery (RCSD) program, which is funded primarily through Alberta Health Services and also offers services like physical therapy, mental health therapy and consultations for students who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing, will shut down effective Sept. 1.

Starting next school year, the $75 million that used to go to RCSD will be split between school districts that will now be responsible for offering the services.

Those involved say it’s too early to know exactly what that will look like but both the union representing the approximately 300 professionals involved in the program and the Opposition NDP are worried students will suffer.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said the money “will remain in the education system” but did not answer questions about whether it would be required to go towards similar services to what RCSD offered.

The Health Sciences Association of Alberta union says the money is going into general revenues for the schools as opposed to targeted funding.

President Mike Parker said schools are already cash-strapped from funding cuts and programs like RCSD are the first to go.

“There is no guarantee they will offer the same amount of wrap-around service for children and their families who need significant support,” he said.

He said he fears kids will fall through the cracks.

In a statement, Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson said the new funding model was decided on at the request of school authorities. Anna Batchelor, a spokesperson for Edmonton Public Schools, said that request did not come from her district but she can’t speak for others.

“We recognize this is a change for everyone, including students, families, school districts, partners and AHS, and that the in-school supports currently provided will be different next year,” Williamson said. “The full impact of these changes will not be known until school boards finalize their decisions on how they will spend the RCSD funding now allocated to them.”

He said AHS is working through how best to provide community-based care in addiction and mental health, pediatric rehabilitation and, in Edmonton, the children home care that was provided under the RCSD program.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman called the movement of money from both the health and education departments a “shell game” and accused the government of putting the responsibility onto the schools when the overall education budget for schools is not increasing enough as the number of students grows.

“Parents and kids are going to know in September when they can’t see that mental health therapist or they can’t have that braille specialist available to their child who needs braille, that these kinds of cuts are real, that they’re damaging, and that they’re really disadvantaging children who need our help the most,” she said.

Hoffman believes some of the larger school districts may be able to continue offering some services but said she expects the smaller rural districts will struggle.

“These school districts are far from each other. People are going to be trying to piece together small contracts and as a result, they’re probably going to end up leaving a lot of those communities because they won’t be able to put together a full-time job with all of the bureaucracy that’s going to be included,” she said.

Parker said parents with private insurance might have to step in to pay for the services their kids are missing.

“After a couple of years,there is a tight relationship of trust and now that that is under threat of being ripped away,” he said.

In a statement, Leona Morrison, assistant superintendent with Edmonton Public Schools, said the district will use the funds that were previously allocated to RCSD to continue providing wrap-around support to students throughout the division and that processes previously in place to provide specialized services will remain in place.

“It is too early to fully understand the impact of RCSD funding changes on individual students and families. We will continue our work to provide timely access to specialized supports for students as needed, and are confident in our ability to do so,” she said.