Social worker layoffs on the table as Seven Oaks School Division says funding not keeping pace with costs

Winnipeg’s Seven Oaks School Division may drop some of its school social worker positions and fold some of their duties into other roles, suggesting financial limitations have forced tough decisions on the division and there won’t be any significant change for students.

Seven Oaks superintendent Bryan O’Leary said there are currently 7.4 full-time equivalent school social worker positions staffed by eight people. Most float from school to school depending on need, but moving forward they will be stationed full-time at particular schools.

O’Leary said it’s possible some staff who aren’t in favour of the switch “may choose to leave.”

“At this moment, no one’s laid off and we’re beginning to work in the process, but layoffs aren’t off the table,” O’Leary said.

“We don’t expect that there will be an impact on students. We’re not losing resources, we’re changing how we deliver a service.”

While there could be fewer social workers, O’Leary says the coming changes could also result in 18 more teaching positions.

Seven Oaks School Division superintendent Brian O'Leary.
Seven Oaks School Division superintendent Brian O’Leary suggested having social workers stationed in specific schools will bring a consistency to the service and help build relationships between them, students and families. (Nampande Londe/CBC)

The news comes a month after the division’s board announced a property tax hike to help Seven Oaks maintain its levels of teaching staff and student programs

O’Leary said funding increases haven’t kept pace with rising costs and growing enrolment.

Financial constraints in recent years have influenced the division to “make a number of difficult decisions,” including cutting continuing education, axing 25 non-teaching positions and halving its summer program budget, he said.

“We are always asking ourselves what’s the best use for our limited resources and in this case it’s in-school supports rather than clinical supports.”

In the event of layoffs, one of the reasons O’Leary thinks students won’t be impacted is because he believes some of the work can be absorbed by school counsellors, resource teachers and community agencies that assist students with mental health needs. School psychologists and speech and language clinician positions will remain, he said.

“Both those disciplines are doing assessments of kids and programming that really takes a level of expertise,” he said. “Social workers are more generalists and their skill set is not too different from learning support teachers, from counsellors.”

Barb Temmerman challenges that characterization.

Temmerman, executive director of the Manitoba College of Social Workers, said social workers are trained to provide direct clinical support services, whereas teachers, resource teachers and guidance counsellors are trained with a focus in education.

“It’s very disappointing to see potential cuts to social work services here in Manitoba and I think it’s part of a larger issue in that schools are underfunded generally,” said Temmerman.

“Cutting social work services in school will be significant: reduced attendance, increased behavioural and emotional issues, reduced engagement with students and families, which is going to exacerbate an already existing mental health crisis.”

Social workers have ‘critical role’

Other provinces are increasing the number of social workers in schools in response to mental health crises following the pandemic, said Temmerman.

“Our community services are under strain … and we are at the highest need for mental health services, so social workers have a critical role,” said Temmerman.

“School social workers have the highest caseload they’ve seen in years following the pandemic and this is the time when we are needed the most.”

Nicole Scott from the Manitoba Association of School Social Workers, echoed Temmerman.

“The demand on them has been higher than ever,” said Scott. 

Scott said school social workers have a unique skill set that enables them to deal with everything from academic risk factors to helping students and families develop behavioural and mental health strategies.

That skill set also sees them out in the community and in the school working with administration, delivering prevention and trauma-informed programming with teachers as well as emotion and anger management programming for students.

“Social workers will work from a more holistic perspective in terms of maybe reaching out to family, reaching out to community, connecting families with community supports, working within the school team and trying to come up with a plan … for students to be successful.”

Trauma-informed approach

Amber Zetanuk, supervisor of students and family supports in the Louis Riel School Division, said social workers help with the impacts to class size and classroom dynamics resulting from the addition of 600 newcomer students to that division this school year.

“We are noticing a lot of the students from Ukraine do have trauma that they may have experienced and so helping support them, their families and the school system in knowing how to respond when a child might be triggered,” said Zetanuk.

Beyond counselling and helping students in other ways, Zetanuk said school social workers assist staff in learning about trauma, mental health, drug awareness and suicide prevention.

“So, looking at behaviour as a perhaps trauma response and not just a child whose being manipulative or being stubborn, so we would help them look at behaviour through that kind of lens,” said Zetanuk.

“I just think every school division needs social workers to address the needs of students and families.”

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