Manitoba to hire 100 teachers for support centre while those in schools plead for help

Manitoba is hiring 100 teachers and 20 educational assistants to launch a resource centre to support remote learning, while nearly 500 teachers have signed a letter saying they're at a breaking point and desperate for more staff in schools.

'We've reached the beginning of the breaking point,' says teacher who signed letter

River Heights School pivoted in the fall to provide more space between students. Its gym now functions as a classroom. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Manitoba is hiring 100 teachers and 20 educational assistants to launch a resource centre to support remote learning, while nearly 500 teachers have signed a letter saying they're at a breaking point and desperate for more staff in schools.

"We're doing two or three different jobs at once, and it's not sustainable. The whole system's going to crumble as teachers cannot keep doing what they're doing," said Jennifer Paszkat.

Paszkat teaches music in the Pembina Trails School Division, and is one of the teachers who signed the letter as part of a group calling themselves Advocacy for Education Manitoba. 

"We're short substitute teachers. Often principals and vice-principals are having to cover classes."

At a press conference announcing the remote learning support centre, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said staff will be hired by the province through federal funding announced in August. They are not new teachers for the school system.

That federal funding amounted to $85.4 million for Manitoba, from a $2 billion pot announced by the federal government to help provinces and territories reopen their schools and economies safely.

Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced the province is hiring 100 teachers and 20 educational assistants, but none of them will work in classrooms. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

The Manitoba Teachers' Society (MTS) insists it has seen very little of that $84.5 million and fully supports the lobbying being done by the Advocacy for Education group.

"MTS has repeatedly called for the release of federal funds intended specifically to address our schools' pandemic-related needs. While that money has flowed in other provinces, it has trickled — at best — here in Manitoba," said James Bedford, the teachers' society president.

"Our teachers are drowning. Our principals, vice-principals, clinicians and school staff are drowning. What will it take for the province to release funding intended to keep our schools safe?"

Asked several times by reporters on Monday about what is being done to get more instructors actually into schools, Goertzen repeatedly said there are resources in place for hiring of teachers at the school level.

"I don't dismiss the fact this is a very challenging time everywhere in society. When we hear those concerns from the school system, absolutely it concerns us," he said.

4 active COVID-19 outbreaks at schools

School divisions have access to funding from provincial and federal governments and have been using it, hiring 500 teachers since March, he said.

He lauded teachers for their efforts and for ensuring students remain safe, citing public health officials who say the level of COVID-19 transmission is lower in schools than many other places in the province.

Manitoba had recorded 416 cases of COVID-19 in schools as of Friday — 310 of those cases were students, and 106 were staff members. The province currently has four active COVID-19 outbreaks at schools, with one declared over.

The government has posted dozens of possible exposures at schools across Manitoba on its website, including more than 150 exposures at schools in the Winnipeg health region since Sept. 25.

"Our teachers have done an incredible job delivering remote and blended learning, and the remote learning support centre will ensure the support necessary for remote learning to be sustained over the long term," Goertzen said, redirecting the conversation back to the topic of the new centre.

"This new centre will provide much-needed support to teachers across the province who are leading remote learning, many for the first time, and to parents who have found themselves in the role of teacher and are in need of resources."

The $10-million centre will support teachers delivering remote learning by providing learning programs, professional development opportunities, instructional coaching and technology supports, Goertzen said.

The centre will fully launch later this month, though some teachers have been accessing it already.

'Breaking down in tears'

A trustee with the Winnipeg School Division echoed the call that help is desperately needed to support teachers in the classrooms.

Chris Broughton, chair of finance and personnel for the Winnipeg School Division, said they have hired nearly 100 more teachers this year to help deal with absenteeism and the requirement to split classrooms into several smaller ones. But it's still not enough.

"Teachers are extraordinarily stressed. I know that there are teachers sitting in their cars at lunch because they have nowhere else to go and they're crying, they're breaking down in tears," he said.

"We're deeply concerned for their mental health."

The division has been spending to mitigate some of the challenges being juggled by teachers and to make sure that "wellness is front of mind for all of our staff," Broughton said.

"But at the end of the day, the workload that our teachers are facing is absolutely incredible and is unsustainable."

He said the Winnipeg School Division has not received anything from the federal $84.5 million "and we have no guarantees that we will see a dime from this provincial government."

Regardless, the division has been spending money and intends to track the expenses and seek reimbursement from the province, Broughton said.

System in crisis

Advocacy for Education Manitoba — made up of school leaders and support staff from across the province — penned their letter to  Goertzen and Premier Brian Pallister on Sunday, calling for "resources and decisive leadership."

"This is a system in crisis and our staff are beyond exhaustion — they are broken," the group said in a news release.

The 490 signatories of the letter say the system has reached a critically unsustainable point during the second wave of the pandemic.

They are requesting funding for reduced class sizes, mental health supports for students and teachers, digital equity for students and staff who need access to devices and the Internet, and prompt contact tracing and testing for staff and students, among other things.

As part of its efforts to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the province announced last week it is launching a digital ad campaign about how the virus spreads.

Teachers see that as a slap in the face, Paszkat said.

"The government needs to put money and resources towards education instead of putting it towards ads to tell people to stay home," she said.

Teachers are prepping for multiple jobs because they are being pulled in every direction, which leads to a trickle-down effect, Paszkat said.

Students with disabilities are not getting the help they require because their teachers are being redeployed into regular classroooms, she said.

"I would be very upset with the government if I had a child who had exceptional needs. I would be upset that my child is not getting the supports they need," Paszkat said. "And who's [to] blame? That would be the government. It wouldn't be the teacher's fault nor would it be the school's fault."

If money were provided for resources, this wouldn't be the case, she said. She wants Goertzen to acknowledge the federal government education funding has not been spent.

"The government needs to step up and put the money to where it needs to go," Paszkat said.

"We've reached the beginning of the breaking point."

With files from Darren Bernhardt, Karen Pauls, and Rachel Bergen