Substitute shortage a concern as Manitoba schools prepare for September return of students

COVID-19-related health protocols could mean more absences from classrooms than normal when school starts again in September. But there may not be enough substitute teachers to meet that demand, according to the Manitoba Teachers' Society.

Manitoba substitute teachers not sure how, or where, they'll be able to work when classes resume

A teacher wearing a face shield helps students before classes begin for the day in a Texas elementary school in an Aug. 5 photo. As Manitoba schools prepare for the return of students in September, there are questions about whether there will be enough substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who are ill or self-isolating. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

Melissa Ballard says as the province sorts out what the return to school this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic will look like, substitute teachers like her have been forgotten.

"The people who got forgotten from the beginning were the substitute teachers. That was particularly stressful. Now it seems we are still an afterthought," said the Brandon music educator.

Ballard, 30, has taught in Brandon for five years, some of them as a full-time teacher. But after a car accident left her with a vision impairment that prevented her from driving for hours to teach in three different schools, she became a substitute instead, normally picking up almost the equivalent of full-time hours.

But when schools shut down and she was thrown out of work last spring, Ballard says her stress level soared. Now, she wonders how divisions will secure enough substitutes when there already often aren't enough during a regular flu season.

Melissa Ballard, a substitute teacher in Brandon, says she is hoping she will be able to work in more than one school this fall. (Submitted by Melissa Ballard)

James Bedford, the president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, says that could be an issue around the province this school year.

"We are certainly concerned about the shortage of certified substitute teachers going into the coming year — that we simply won't have enough," he said.

"With teachers following the advice of the public health officer, there is going to be elevated number of absences among teachers."

The province released its guidelines for the Sept. 8 return to in-class learning late last month.

"Because students and staff must stay home when sick, schools and school divisions must plan for absenteeism," the guidelines say. "Strategies for the recruitment and retention of substitute teachers and other staff members will also be required."

How long a teacher who is sick must be away from work, and how many substitutes are available in Manitoba to replace them, are logistics Bedford is discussing with the province.

"We are hearing if you are ill, you should be staying home for two weeks. But two weeks is an enormous amount of time to be away from the classroom [and] to find a substitute to fill that vacancy," he said.

We don't have a playbook to work from. We have not been in a situation like this before.- MTS president James Bedford

MTS has asked the province if there is some other mechanism that could be put in place to limit those absences, such as expedited testing for teachers, to determine more quickly if a teacher has a cold or COVID.

Getting teachers back in the classroom sooner, Bedford said, would help alleviate the substitute shortage.

He also hopes some retirees will step up to substitute and ease the shortage. But he acknowledges they may be reluctant to do that, and might want to first see the measures school divisions are taking to ensure safety. Retirees would be limited in the number of days they can work while receiving a pension, he added.

A possible substitute shortage is an issue all school divisions are grappling with, including Manitoba's largest, the Winnipeg School Division, which has 33,000 students and 6,000 full- and part-time staff.

Radean Carter, the division's senior information officer, says making sure there are enough substitutes has been one of the objectives of the division since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. 

"Regardless of the number of substitutes available, we are standing firm on ensuring that all staff and students do a daily self-check with the screening tool and act according to the recommendations from public health," said Carter, adding it will be a monumental effort in which everyone has to work together to prevent COVID-19 from entering schools.

How many schools can subs work in?

Ballard wants to know if there will be a limit to how many schools substitute teachers can work in.

While she likes going to different schools to learn what different teachers are doing, and hopes to work in two or three divisions in the Brandon area, that raises concerns.

"If we go into several schools in different divisions, we can accidentally spread it or get infected, because maybe not all the precautions that should be taken were not taken," said Ballard.

That issue came up earlier during the pandemic in personal care homes, where employees often worked in more than one location to make up full-time hours.

Manitoba, like other provinces, banned health-care workers from working at more than one facility.

"It is one thing we are looking for direction on from the province — is it acceptable to have a sub working in different schools over the course of the week?" said Bedford. "If that happens, there very definitely has to be tracking in place."

While he said the risk in a personal care home is different from that in a school, there is still a risk.

Both Ballard and Bedford hope the province will take leadership in making the rules the same in all divisions across the province.

"We don't have a playbook to work from. We have not been in a situation like this before," said Bedford. 

"So we are going to have to work hard together on getting the answers."


Born and raised in Winnipeg, Marianne has always had a passion for seeking the truth. She began her career anchoring and reporting at CKX Brandon. From there she worked in both TV news and current affairs at CBC Saskatoon. For the past 25 years Marianne has worked in Winnipeg, both in radio and television. She was formerly a teacher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.


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