“Criss cross applesauce,” an excited Cohen Scarff, 10, says to his parents at their Halifax home on Sunday afternoon.

It’s one of his favourite nursery rhymes because it always ends in tickles. With his ringlets, clear blue eyes, and dimpled cheeks, Cohen resembles a cherub from a Renaissance painting. His mother jokes that all he needs is Cupid’s bow and his next Halloween costume is complete.

Cohen, who has autism, doesn’t like shirts. He prefers to only wear shorts at home and loves to sit outside watching the wind whip through the trees. As heavy rain pelts their gated front yard, he tries multiple times to convince his father to join him in their outdoor hammock. His delighted giggles and his parents’ broad smiles as they interact with him fill the room with joy.

But there hasn’t been as much joy for Cohen the last two weeks. When 1,800 Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) educational program assistants (EPAs), support workers, and pre-primary teachers went on strike May 10, Cohen became one of 600 students no longer able to attend school. 

Cohen misses school so much that when the strike began, he’d cry when the school bus drove past his house and left without him.

“He knows his schedule, of course. So I’ve got all the curtains closed and he’d come up and he’d pull the curtains back and he’d be sitting there,” his father Mick Scarff said. “The one thing we know is that he loves the bus, and he loves everything that happens after the bus.”

The school bus recently started taking a different route. Cohen still waits every morning, eyes fixed on the window, waiting for it to arrive.

The back of a young boy's head is seen staring out a large picture window at his front yard and street as he waits for the school bus to drive by.
Cohen Scarff waits for the school bus. Credit: Mike Scarff

‘It’s hard for him’

His mother, Kerri Scarff, said Cohen (affectionately called ‘Cohie’) has made them better people. Describing him as an “amazing, happy child” and their “silent genius,” she said he loved school from the day he started Grade Primary. 

“We don’t have conversations with Cohie, although he can do requests and interact with us. But we know he misses his routine,” Kerri said. 

“About a year ago, we went through a phase where he was quite frustrated. We’ve worked through that. It was a long process and we got to a really good point. And the last couple of days, it’s going backwards a little. You can tell it’s hard for him. He just cannot say it.”

Cohen needs one-on-one support from an EPA and requires assistance with tasks like getting dressed and going to the washroom. He’s also a flight risk. There are locks and alarms in and around their home to ensure he doesn’t flee. 

“His version of autism is all about outbursts…It’s all from frustration…He doesn’t like the word no, but also if he feels put on the spot, feels embarrassed, all that sort of stuff,” Mick explained.

“He doesn’t lash out. He doesn’t hurt people…He’s generally a very good kid. And if he does have an outburst, he gets very upset about the fact that he had the outburst.”

‘Feeling included’

The Scarffs have nothing but praise for the EPAs who make it possible for Cohen and other children with disabilities to attend school. 

“We want to make sure that they know we think they deserve everything and more,” Kerri said. “These EPAs care about these kids. They consider them their kids. That’s how most of them look at them.”

Cohen made great progress this past year. He had a job delivering breakfast bins by himself to different classrooms every morning, something his parents described as “huge.” He was also enjoying music and staying for the whole class. Cohen was even playing instruments because of his EPA’s support.  

“What they give him is more than just getting him to do maths and work and all that sort of stuff. It’s confidence,” Mick said. “It’s the social part. It’s feeling included. It’s all the little things that he probably doesn’t even realize.”

‘He matters’

During a particularly poignant moment, Kerri’s voice drops to a whisper as she struggles to fight back tears.

“He matters. He matters. They matter,” she said.

The pair said despite HRCE’s efforts to find outside replacement workers, that would never be a good solution for a child like Cohen.

Kerri said besides his parents, brothers, and grandparents, Cohen’s EPAs know him best. They can tell a happy yell from a frustrated one and know exactly how to calm him down. When Cohen becomes upset, for example, he begins to repeat the phrase ‘Merry Christmas.’

“People would be like, ‘Oh, that’s a happy thing.’ Well, it’s him trying to make it happy, but it’s not happy,” Mick said.

“So to have someone new go in is just going to upset the boat to get him to go back to school. And it’s going to be difficult because of how long he’s been out (of school).”

‘Out of sight, out of mind’

The couple said too few people are aware of the important role EPAs play in ensuring children like Cohen get the education to which they’re entitled. 

‘Getting him in the classroom shows that he can be with other people…And it’s not just social. It’s helping the other kids who don’t need an EPA understand that there are people like him out there and that they’re welcome everywhere and they should be welcome everywhere,” Mick said.

“The fact that he’s disappeared means that he’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s easy for a politician to say, ‘No, no, we care.’ But that’s just words and it’s the actions that matter.” 

They believe EPAs deserve better compensation and that their son deserves — and has a right — to be in school with his classmates. Both point to recent wage increases for early childhood educators (ECEs) and continuing care assistants (CCAs). They said those people deserved a pay hike, and so do EPAs.

“There’s really only one way that this works out well and that is that the government comes through and gives them what they deserve,” Mick said. “It’s not what they want, it’s what they deserve. If they had what they want, they’d be in class.”

567 EPA-supported students unable to attend school

In an email late Tuesday, HRCE spokesperson Lindsey Bunin said according to the latest data, there are 567 EPA-supported students who are unable to attend school as a result of the ongoing strike.

“However, it is changing daily as principals work with families on a case-by-case basis to make arrangements for EPA-supported students to attend school safely,” Bunin said.

Cohen is one of those whose principal and learning centre teacher have tried to find a makeshift solution. 

Late last week, the family received a call from Cohen’s learning centre teacher. She wanted to get Cohen back to school and proposed having him dropped off at 1pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The plan is for him to stay until school’s out at 3pm when he’ll ride the bus home. 

Although grateful, the couple is uncertain how it will work out. Kerri said if things go smoothly, the arrangement will likely continue. But because the learning centre teacher is taking on the task alone, they fear that if Cohen has a difficult time transitioning back to school, the arrangement will be “short-lived.” 

Families struggling

This has been a challenging time for the Scarff family for other reasons.

While Mick and Kerri both have understanding employers, they’re concerned about the impact the ongoing strike is having on their work lives. Mick has no vacation days left, so any missed days will be without pay. He worked last weekend so he can stay home when Cohen’s grandparents or Kerri are unable to be there.

“Our life is different from everyone else’s. We have a couple of friends with kids with autism and they have the same experience as us. But our life is harder,” Mick said. 

“We don’t get to go to the places to do the things because we have considerations. And the thing that’s easy and we don’t have to think about is school. And now we don’t even have that. And we have to think about losing time, money, everything.”

The couple said knowing how they’re struggling to cope, they can’t imagine what it’s like for people who don’t have family support, understanding employers, or those who work minimum wage jobs. 

“If I was in retail or something and I missed work, I wouldn’t be getting paid or I’d lose my job,” Kerri said.

Cohen also has monthly speech therapy and access to an occupational therapist while in school. That means he’s also missing out on those resources. 

The Scarffs fear the labour dispute will drag on until the end of the school year. The uncertainty of the situation — including not knowing what September will look like — been especially stressful. 

“If we don’t matter now, well, what changes? Why do we matter in September,” Kerri said.

‘Kicks you in the gut’

Last week the Liberals called for a human rights investigation into the strike’s impact on vulnerable students unable to attend school. The Scarffs agree that their son and hundreds of other children in HRCE schools are facing discrimination. 

Mick said discrimination is unfortunately part of parenting a child with autism. But their frustration stems from a sense that “the powers that be” don’t seem to recognize the value in properly compensating workers who ensure children with disabilities receive the education they need and deserve.

“You get the diagnosis, you read a million books. And basically what they say is that the world is not built for a kid like Cohie. It’s totally unintentional. It discriminates against him because it’s either too loud or too busy or too bright or too whatever, or there’s things he doesn’t understand,” Mick said.

“You can tolerate it because autism is only just starting to really be understood and become part of our world. But when it’s intentional, it really kicks you in the gut. And this is an intentional thing. It’s politicians and members of the school board just sticking their feet in the mud and going, ‘No. You’re not going to force us to do this. Not for any reason.’”

‘I care about today and tomorrow’

As Cohen becomes increasingly out of sorts with each passing day, Mick said he’s tired of politicians pointing fingers at each other. He just wants EPAs to be given a fair wage so they can go back to work and Cohen and other children can return to school.

“I was reading comments where they’re like ‘Four years ago when you were in power, you didn’t do blah blah.’ I don’t give a rat’s ass what they did four years ago,” he said. “I care about today and tomorrow.”

As reported here, the province offered school support workers a 6.5% raise over three years. While the province reached a tentative agreement with school support workers in the rest of the province, workers in HRM rejected the offer. 

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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  1. The situation of Cohen and his family is well reported in this piece. In 2023 there remains no route for advocates despite 600 kids having their education derailed as the result of a contract dispute. All decisions on how to handle this situation are made by bureaucrats; there is no elected school board. Even had elected boards remained, they would have had no ability to deal with this matter as it would have been outside their ‘domain’.
    Had the position of ombudsman to deal with matters affecting inclusion practices been accepted as part of the Glaze Report, the situation would be as it is currently. So, the elected school board would make no difference; the ombudsman would make no difference; what’s left? Shrugs.
    All that happens when the paltry 6.5% over three yrs. raise offer is mentioned is that politicians and their depts. shrug it off. The offer is inadequate on its face; recent, current and anticipated inflation rates say so. And for people like Cohen’s parents, they get shrugs and well-intentioned ,but essentially not helpful, expressions of ‘ain’t it awful’ . Essentially just another shrug.
    No elected sch. bd.; no political party; no Minister of Education has ever come up with a clear route for advocates. That will only happen if those advocates set this up themselves, and, then, go after policy makers-all of whom sit in offices and not at school board tables or on School Advisory Councils.
    Interestingly, how many School Advisory Councils have chimed in on this dispute/ situation and its impacts? What advice have they offered that was responded to by anything more than a shrug? Has any SAC even offered a press release? Maybe these ?’s could be put to the SAC’s in the HRCE circle.