Pandemic's sixth wave has 'decimated' staffing levels in Waterloo region schools

Waterloo region schools have been hit hard by the pandemic in recent weeks, with administrators scrambling to backfill teachers who are off sick with COVID-19.

Catholic board said current wave unlike anything seen before

The Waterloo Catholic and Waterloo Region District School Boards say they've been hit hard by staffing shortages during the sixth wave of the pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Waterloo region schools have been hit hard by the pandemic in recent weeks, with administrators scrambling to backfill teachers who are off sick with COVID-19. 

"It's totally decimated the school staff," said Patrick Etmanski, head of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, Waterloo unit. 

"Prior to the protocols being removed, people were getting ill and there were a few here and there that I would hear from who had COVID — but now it's just rampant." 

Last week, the Catholic board took the rare step of closing a Cambridge elementary school because it didn't have enough staff to safely operate.

The school has since reopened, but the backfill problem remains — with the board's head of human resources describing the sixth wave of the pandemic as "unlike anything we've experienced before." 

It's a similar situation at the Waterloo Region District School Board, according to union leader Jeff Pelich. 

"Everything is in chaos," said Pelich, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario — Waterloo Region. 

"This year is like none other — we're seeing the highest numbers of absences that we've ever seen."

Stopgap solutions

Pelich described the present situation as a "perfect storm," with a high number of staff off sick and a lack of supply teachers to fill in for them. 

When there aren't enough supply teachers available, schools are forced to get creative, reassigning central teachers or pulling teachers from elsewhere in the school to supervise a classroom during their planning period. 

Pelich said that isn't good for teachers — or for students. 

"Instead of having one qualified educator who is in front of them all day long, they're likely to have five, six, seven, eight different people in any given day in front of their classroom," said Pelich. 

Patrick Etmanski is president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, Waterloo Unit. (Submitted by Patrick Etmanski)

Lately, the Catholic board has also been relying more often on "classroom supervisors." These are people who are not qualified teachers but who have passed a vulnerable sector check and can watch over a classroom to make sure students are safe, Etmanski said. 

"At this point, school boards are saying, 'If you've got a pulse and you want to help, we'll probably take you,'" said Etmanski. 

Jason Connolly, the Catholic board's superintendent of human resources, said it has always used uncertified teachers or classroom supervisors in emergencies — but it's now happening about three or four times as often as it used to.

Statistics on teacher absences provided by the school board shows there were 2,454 absences last month.
That's compared with 2,289 in March of 2021.

The Waterloo Region District School Board doesn't have a "classroom supervisor" position, but it does call on new teachers who have finished their studies, but who have not yet been certified, if there are no supply staff available, said Graham Shantz, the board's head of human resources and equity services. 

If necessary, both the public and Catholic boards said principals can also choose to combine classes, or to close classrooms and direct students to learn remotely. Shantz noted that school officials do the best they can to keep classrooms open and safe for students. 

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Opinions vary on what it will take to stabilize staffing levels in Waterloo region schools.

Etmanski said the lack of supply teachers is a problem that predates the pandemic, and believes the province needs to graduate more teachers. 

Connolly said the board is trying its best to hire more school staff of all kinds, but agreed a provincial strategy is needed to address staffing issues on a broader level. 

While Shantz declined to comment on what needs to change going forward, Pelich believes that, in the short term, bringing back a mask mandate would at least help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in local schools.

"We've been wearing masks for a year and a half, two years in our schools; another few weeks just to get over the current uptick in numbers is not necessarily going to be the end of the world," he said.