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Ottawa educators offered padded shirts, arm and shin guards to protect themselves from violent students

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Educators at Ottawa’s English school boards can wear shin and forearm guards, foam-padded jackets and reinforced gloves to protect themselves from students who bite, kick, scratch and punch.

The “personal protective equipment” is employed as a last resort, say spokespeople for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board.

Currently, about 45 educators in the English public board use the equipment, mainly educational assistants, says spokesperson Sharlene Hunter. Educational assistants help children with special needs and behaviour problems.

The Catholic board maintains a “wide inventory” of protective equipment, says spokesperson Mardi de Kemp. It’s usually employed on a temporary basis or for a specific period of time, she says. Board officials did not have information on how many staff are currently using protective equipment.

The use of personal protective equipment at schools has been steadily increasing across Ontario, says Laura Walton, president of a union that represents 55,000 educational assistants and other educators in the province’s four school systems. “We’ve had it for a long time, but It’s just becoming more and more prevalent.”

Violence among school children appears to be on the rise, says Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions. Her assessment, based on anecdotal evidence, is shared by Martha Hradowy, an executive with another major union that represents educational assistants and early childhood educators as well as high school teachers.

An educator at a school in southwestern Ontario who wears a padded vest and face protection to protect her from violent students. photo supplied by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation / jpg

School boards are also reacting to changes in Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, made to ensure employers protect staff from violence in the workplace, Hradowy says.

The union representing elementary teachers has also raised the alarm about aggressive children, saying it has become a key issue for their members.

At the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, the number of violent incidents educators reported experiencing personally has increased dramatically over the past three years, from 1,909 incidents in 2015-16 to 3,746 incidents in 2017-18.

In the first seven months of this school year, 4,223 incidents were reported. That may be due partly to more reporting after the board switched to an electronic system this school year.

StealthWear Protective Clothing, a Toronto company specializing in equipment for educators, now sells its products to most school boards in the province, says president Aaron Wood.

The black jacket has sewn-in foam inserts in the arms and chest, as well as pockets for inserting extra foam pieces into the abdomen and back. Stealthwear Clothing / jpg

His company supplies the Ottawa Catholic School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

StealthWear looks more like sports garb than riot gear.

That’s deliberate. It’s designed to look as much like ordinary clothing as possible, says Wood.

He started the company in 2011 because there were virtually no protective products designed for educators, he said.

The equipment is not made with Kevlar, the super-strong fibre often used in bullet-proof vests and combat helmets.

StealthWear uses breathable, high-impact foam encased in plastic, which “provides excellent resistance to pinches, bites, scratches and hits,” says the website.

The $174.95 StealthWear black jacket has foam inserts sewn into the places educators said they are most likely to be attacked: the upper arms and chest. Pockets in the jacket allow inserts to be added in the abdomen, back and underarms.

The company also sells shin guards, forearm protectors and two types of gloves: a thermo-plastic rubber model that resists blunt force and an abrasion-resistant glove for protection from scratches and nail gouging.

Wood says the garments use technology common in sportswear brands, such as moisture-wicking CoolMax fabric.

These StealthWear reinforced gloves are touch-screen sensitive. Rick Katigbak rick@rkphoto.ca +1 514 889-7132 / jpg

StealthWear equipment is an improvement, says Walton, who remembers in the past educators improvising with soccer shin guards and protective gear for BMX bikers.

Everyone wants protective clothing that doesn’t stand out, so children don’t feel threatened or intimidated. “I don’t think schools want us to walk around looking like a linebacker,” says Walton.

However, protective gear can be hot, especially in the summer, she says. Some schools have installed portable air conditioners or provided extra breaks to educators who must wear it. “In May and June when the schools are hot, there aren’t a lot of people wanting to put on a black jacket.”

And while protective jackets “are good if you have a biter, when it comes to strikes or blows or punches, the padding doesn’t always absorb the shock,” says Walton.

The gear can also make educators a target, since some students with sensory issues like the feeling of punching or pinching the foam, she says.

The armguards by StealthWear are padded with foam encased in plastic. Credit: StealthWear Protective Clothing. Rick Katigbak rick@rkphoto.ca +1 514 889-7132 / jpg

An educational assistant at the Ottawa Catholic School Board says she was offered forearm protectors after being attacked by a high school student.

This newspaper is not revealing the woman’s name because she does not want the student to be identified.

The woman says she declined the protection, partly because she feared that if she started wearing the equipment it would be required permanently.

In addition, a behaviour specialist called in after the attack told her the student would probably just aim his punch higher on her arm if she wore a forearm protector, she says.

The student is high-needs and can be violent. He is integrated into a regular classroom, but has two educational assistants with him at all times, she says.

“He’s a very challenging student. Throwing chairs, flipping desks, hitting, kicking … ”

Sometimes when he becomes aggressive the classroom is evacuated, with the other students leaving for their own safety, she says.

There is also a “quiet room,” where he can stay on his own, sometimes while staff hold the door shut. The student will often walk there himself, but if he becomes violent staff have locked down the school, preventing other students from entering the hallways as he is escorted to the quiet room, she says.

She says he attacked her one day after she opened the door to the quiet room. The student jumped on her, grabbing her arm so tightly she was left with multiple bruises and swelling. “I had to pry him off … it was almost like a wrestling match.” She was able to fend him off long enough to radio for help.

The woman said when she began her job as an educational assistant more than a decade ago, she would often help students with academics as well as their medical needs and behaviour.

Now her job is primarily dealing with behaviour problems. “There is more hitting, kicking, punching — and I don’t know the reason why.”

“I still love it,” she says. “I still see successes and I’m excited for some of the kids … But it’s draining, every day.”

Protective equipment is a last resort, say local school board officials.

The Catholic board develops a behaviour plan for aggressive students, and intervention without specialized equipment is “preferred and often has the best result,” De Kemp said in a statement.

At the public board, protective equipment is used in “limited circumstances where it is required after other reasonable measures have been considered and implemented,” Hunter said in a statement.

That would usually include developing a “safety plan” for a student that identifies triggers for aggressive behaviour and develops strategies for staff to both prevent and respond to incidents; training staff in behaviour management and non-violent crisis intervention; and making sure staff have communications devices to call for help, says the statement.

A spokesperson for the French-language Catholic schools in Ottawa says the board does not use protective equipment. At the French-language public school board, a spokesperson said officials are “doing a pilot project with various types of equipment.”

Across the province, Walton says educators are facing increasingly diverse classrooms that incorporate children with special needs.

More support is required, but it’s not always available, she says.

Some school boards offer protective equipment as a “quick fix” after an educator is injured rather than spending the time and resources required to figure out the problem and provide more support to the child, she says.

“If you come and say that a student bit you, and you have to go to the hospital and get a tetanus shot, that’s a WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) claim against the board.

“It’s so much easier for (the board) to assign you an armguard than it is to really do a deep dive and understand … Are you providing sufficient programming? Are you meeting the needs of the student? In the majority of cases, the violence has been an outcome of an unaddressed need.”

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Record one million job losses in March: StatCan

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OTTAWA — More than one million Canadians lost their jobs in the month of March, Statistics Canada is reporting. The unemployment rate has also climbed to 7.8 per cent, up from 2.2 percentage points since February.

Canada’s national statistics agency released its monthly Labour Force Survey on Thursday, using March 15 to 21 as the sample week – a time when the government began enforcing strict guidelines around social gatherings and called on non-essential businesses to close up shop.

The first snapshot of job loss since COVID-19 began taking a toll on the Canadian economy shows 1.1 million out of work since the prior sample period and a consequent decrease in the employment rate – the lowest since April 1997. The most job losses occurred in the private sector and among people aged 15-24.

The number of people who were unemployed increased by 413,000, resulting in the largest one-month increase in Canada’s unemployment rate on record and takes the economy back to a state last seen in October, 2010.

“Almost all of the increase in unemployment was due to temporary layoffs, meaning that workers expected to return to their job within six months,” reads the findings.

The agency included three new indicators, on top of the usual criteria, to better reflect the impact of COVID-19 on employment across the country.

The survey, for example, excludes the more commonly observed reasons for absent workers — such as vacation, weather, parental leave or a strike or lockout — to better isolate the pandemic’s effect.

They looked at: people who are employed but were out of a job during the reference week, people who are employed but worked less than half their usual hours, and people who are unemployed but would like a job.

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Employee at Ottawa’s Amazon Fulfillment Centre tests positive for COVID-19

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OTTAWA — An employee who works at Amazon’s fulfillment centre on Boundary Road in Ottawa’s east-end has tested positive for COVID-19.

Amazon says it learned on April 3 that an associate tested positive for novel coronavirus and is currently in isolation. The employee last worked at the fulfillment centre on March 19.

Two employees told CTV News Ottawa that management informed all employees about the positive test in a text message over the weekend.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft wrote “we are supporting the individual who is recovering. We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

The statement also says that Amazon has taken steps to further protect their employees.

“We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC.”

CTV News Ottawa asked Amazon about the timeline between when the company found out about the positive COVID-19 case and when employees were notified.

In a separate email to CTV News Ottawa, Crowcroft said “all associates of our Boundary Road fulfillment centre in Ottawa were notified within 24 hours of learning of the positive COVID-19 case.”

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Ottawa facing silent spring as festivals, events cancelled

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This is shaping up to be Ottawa’s silent spring — and summer’s sounding pretty bleak, too — as more and more concerts, festivals and other annual events are cancelled in the wake of measures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The province has already banned gatherings of more than five people, and on Monday officials announced city parks, facilities and services will remain shut down until the end of June, nor will any event permits be issued until at least that time.

“This leaves us with no choice but to cancel the festival this year,” Ottawa Jazz Festival artistic director Petr Cancura confirmed Monday.

This was to be the festival’s 40th anniversary, and organizers announced the lineup for the June 19-July 1 event the day after Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. 

The Toronto and Montreal jazz festivals had already pulled the plug because of similar restrictions in their cities, so Cancura said the writing was on the wall.

“We have a few contingency plans to keep connecting with our audience and working with our artists,” Cancura said.

People holding tickets to the 2020 festival can ask for a refund or exchange for a 2021 pass.

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