Staff shortages, rising absences in pandemic’s 6th wave take a toll on classrooms

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Schools have struggled with ongoing staff shortages throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But with previous in-school mitigation measures lifted across the country — or soon to be — the current rise in positive cases is once again taking a toll on Canadian classrooms

Teachers, union leaders and board officials share snapshots of what’s happening, as staff shortages and absences rise amid the sixth wave. 


‘Not back to normal in the schools’

Early in the pandemic, some experts warned that enduring COVID-19 would be a marathon, not a sprint. For teachers, it’s been more like a race with the finish line repeatedly pushed further away, according to Joanne Small-Greenall.

Whether people are calling it a sixth wave or not, “it’s here and it’s certainly weighing on us,” said the Grade 5 teacher, who works for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

During the pandemic, teachers are increasingly being called upon to give up their daily prep period to cover absent colleagues. ‘It’s just not sustainable,’ says Ottawa teacher Joanne Small-Greenall. (Christian Patry/CBC)

Normally when a teacher is absent, an outside occasional or substitute teacher is called in, although sometimes in-school peers might cover off for a colleague in a pinch. Amid the pandemic it’s increasingly been the latter option, Small-Greenall said, with teachers losing their preparatory periods — time used for marking, preparing and organizing upcoming lessons and assignments, holding meetings, communicating with parents and more.

To replace a daylong absence of just one teacher, she explained, it might take four or five colleagues each giving up their prep periods that day. 

“The extra duties and the way we’re feeling, it’s just not sustainable,” said Small-Greenall, who has taught in the Ottawa board for more than 20 years. 

Students are affected by the disruption of having a rotating mix of different teachers cycling through their classrooms, she pointed out. 

While everyone feels “tired of COVID” and is trying to resume pre-pandemic life, “it’s not back to normal in the schools,” the teacher said. 

“There are more demands being put on us these days, and I don’t see that going away.”

When short-staffed, ‘work is not getting done’

New Brunswick has also been struggling with shortages this spring, with the provincial teachers’ association president Connie Keating noting “a real uptick in absences of school staff.”

New Brunswick Teachers’ Association president Connie Keating expressed concern after hearing about groups of students ‘corralled’ into central locations, like gyms or cafeterias, to be supervised when no substitute teacher could be found. (New Brunswick Teachers’ Association)

While school officials don’t know exactly how many absences are due to COVID-19, “we know that COVID would be contributing to it,” she said, adding that this is the first stretch of time when students have been in school without protective measures like masking.

Without enough qualified supply teachers to replace absent educators, principals must turn to other district staffers like guidance counsellors, resource teachers, coaches or mentors. If those avenues don’t pan out, it falls to the “teachers who are left in the building,” said Keating from Fredericton. 

In some instances, she said, groups of students may even be “corralled” into a central location — the gym or cafeteria, for instance — in order to be supervised.  

“We’re concerned that parents truly don’t know what kind of impact that these staffing shortages are having on their children’s education. Teachers are professionals who do complex, specialized work — and, so, when they are not present in classrooms, that work is not getting done.”

Call to reintroduce in-school measures

Schools are stuck in “a vicious cycle” at the moment, according to Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario president Karen Brown says her members have been calling for action, including reintroducing pandemic safety measures. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)

As the sector grapples with increasing absences and the recent lifting of multiple pandemic measures, there are also ongoing issues affecting staffing, such as lack of sick days for occasional teachers — some of whom aren’t accepting assignments amid the rising case counts.  

“To remove everything at the same time was a recipe for disaster,” Brown said. “It’s impacting families, communities, and it’s going to impact other systems … The spread will continue and this is not what we want.”

A supply teacher shortage is indeed being experienced across the province, a spokesperson for the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association told CBC’s Metro Morning last week, with board officials trying to cover absences in different ways, including sending administrators, principals and librarians to fill in or calling on retired teachers. 

Administrators and support staff are doing their best to manage the current situation, Brown said, but she’s hearing from many teachers calling for action: pandemic safety measures to be reintroduced, continuing the distribution of rapid antigen tests at school and a return to more extensive COVID-19 data tracking. 

“Maybe this is the time that we look at and reconsider reintroducing the mask mandate for a little bit longer,” she said from Toronto. “Watch the numbers and then let’s try to move forward.”

‘We’re monitoring things closely’

Christian Michalik wanted to have more substitute teachers in his Winnipeg school division this spring, but not for the reason you might expect. The superintendent of the Louis Riel School Division had hoped in-school teachers would be able to return to the kinds of training opportunities and professional learning sessions they’d attended pre-pandemic — and they needed backfill. 

Louis Riel School Division superintendent Christian Michalik sent a missive to parents and guardians on Friday, five days after schools returned from spring break, to inform families about rising COVID-related absences. (Submitted by the Louis Riel School Division)

 

While the school division’s pool of substitutes isn’t as strained now as it was in January and February, he said, they’re still being called upon regularly.

The division saw a rise in self-reported student and staff COVID-related absences last week, after the return from spring break, so Michalik sent a letter home to families on Friday flagging the increase and to reiterate the importance of ongoing measures, including screening at home for symptoms, staying home when sick, testing and vaccination.

“If schools see anything concerning… specific to a classroom, specific to a grade level, specific to a school as a whole, we’re in contact with public health officials [and] with officials from the department of education,” he said. 

Michalik believes the pandemic has disrupted essential relationships between students and educators. It’s imperative to rebuild them and tackle academic issues now, he added, “but we can’t let up” on mitigation measures in the meantime.  

More student and staff absences amid a sixth wave of COVID-19 are further disrupting learning in Canadian classrooms. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

A rough spring expected

In the Toronto District School Board, principals are now informing their entire school communities about self-reported COVID-19 cases, but it still isn’t capturing the full picture of absences, said Anne-Marie Longpre, who teaches English to Grade 9 and 10 students.

“It’s always normal to have a couple kids away. Life happens. But certainly nine kids missing from a class is not normal,” the TDSB teacher told CBC’s Metro Morning on Friday, noting that her classes of roughly 25 students saw about a third absent on Thursday. 

As in other regions, due to lack of supply teachers, Longpre and her colleagues have been stepping in for absent co-workers. Last week, she subbed for a construction technology class that was learning about tiling floors — a topic she said she knows little about.

Longpre predicted a rough month ahead.

“We know that COVID is exponential … I just hope everyone makes it through and when we get to actual spring weather — as we’ve seen in the past few years — hopefully numbers get better and we can start to get over this.”

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