London

'Spreading like wildfire:' Local teachers' union says 6th wave is driving teacher absences

Teachers unions say the presence of the pandemic's sixth wave is making itself felt in classrooms. Craig Smith, the president of the local Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said teacher and student absences have increased sharply since classes resumed after March break. 

On Tuesday, 1,600 students and staff at TVDSB failed the board's COVID screening protocol

While school boards have said it's hard to pin down what illnesses are driving the increased absenteeism, Ontario latest wave of COVID-19 infections is showing exponential growth, with hospitalizations, confirmed cases and the presence of the virus in wastewater confirming a jump in infections.  (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Teacher and student absences due to COVID-19 are being felt across schools in the region, the head of the local elementary teachers union said Thursday. 

"To say [COVID-19] is spreading like wildfire⁠ — I don't want to sound alarmist or overstate the case, but it is spreading very, very fast," said Craig Smith, president of the region's Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

"Teachers are off because they are sick and the compounding problem we've got is that there is a shortfall of occasional teachers to take their place."

Absenteeism has been a consistent challenge since the winter, but has only increased sharply since March Break, Smith said, causing challenges for the wellbeing of teachers and putting pressure on school operations. 

Earlier this week, a single school in the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) had 12 teachers away due to illness, Smith said. 

The school board has seen increased absences but has been able to maintain "safe operation" of schools, a spokesperson said. No schools have had to be closed since mask mandates were lifted in mid-March. 

According to the TVDSB's COVID-19 daily screener response, on Tuesday a combined number of more than 1,600 students and staff across the board failed the screener, meaning they reported a symptom related to COVID-19 or are following household isolation or travel requirements.

Catholic situation similar 

At the London District Catholic School Board, two to five per cent of teachers are absent on any given day. Now those numbers are around 10 to 11 per cent, meaning the board has 140 teachers away due to illness every day, said Vince Romeo, the director of education.

"It has been difficult," Romeo said, noting how hard it has become to secure supply teachers who can step in to fill these vacancies. "I think when you take a look at increased migration into the London region, combined with a two year teachers program and quite a few teachers retiring, you have a perfect storm of job vacancies." 

So far, the board hasn't been forced to shut down any schools, but Romeo said they've had instances where principals and vice principals have had to step into classrooms for the day because they can't find supply teachers.

While school boards have said it's hard to pin down what's driving the increased absenteeism, Ontario latest wave of COVID-19 infections is showing exponential growth, with hospitalizations, confirmed cases and the presence of the virus in wastewater confirming a jump in infections. 

In fact, estimates from the viral count in wastewater suggest about 100,000 people are now getting infected daily across the province, according to the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. 

The provincial government lifted most COVID-19 public health measures, including mask mandates in indoor settings in March. While both the Thames Valley and Catholic boards strongly recommend mask use, Smith said the province needs to step in and reinstate the mandate. 

"We are also now starting to see the reappearance of other things ...the spread of croup, the common cold and the flu. All of those things, which were kind of kept at bay because of other protections and precautions that were in place, particularly masking, are now not there." 

"Nobody wants to go back to lockdowns. There's no appetite for stuff like that," Smith said. "But I think a simple thing that [the province] needs to do is bring the masking back ... It's a simple and effective way to kind of put a bit of a barrier up."

With files from Gary Ennett

now