Unions fear teacher shortages in Quebec will be more severe this year

According to the Alliance des professeures et des professeurs de Montréal, a union representing Montreal teachers, the number of unfilled teaching positions is three times higher than it was at this time last year.

Education minister expresses concern but says situation is improving

'There’s a shortage of educational specialists, psychologists, specialists,' said Heidi Yetman, president of a union that represents 8,000 English-language teachers. 'It’s not just teachers we’re worried about — it’s the whole system that we’re worried about.' (Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

With the new school year fast approaching, some teachers associations are concerned there will be a significant staffing shortage due to COVID-19.

According to the Alliance des professeures et des professeurs de Montréal, a union representing Montreal teachers, the number of unfilled teaching positions is three times higher than it was at this time last year.

"It's worrisome," said Catherine Beauvais-St-Pierre, the alliance's president. "It's hard to believe we'll have enough teachers for the new school year — not just in the classroom but also substitute teachers."

The shortage is "much greater this year," said Josée Scalabrini, president of the Fédération des syndicats de l'enseignement, an association of 34 teachers unions. 

But Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, while expressing concern about ongoing shortages, cautioned the unions against reaching conclusions before classes are in session.

"We must leave the [human resources] people the chance to do their jobs," he said. "I have faith teachers will be there for back to school."

Some regions do have the situation under control, Scalabrini said, but they have done so by creating a roster of all available substitute teachers — which would make replacing a teacher who falls ill during the school year more difficult.

Heidi Yetman, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, which represents 8,000 English-language teachers, agreed that the supply of substitutes is a significant issue, "especially since we are in a pandemic and we're expecting teachers to be sent home or to call in sick more often."

In regions such as greater Montreal or the Eastern Townships, Scalabrini said, the situation is already problematic and some positions could be filled by insufficiently qualified teachers or graduates in education.

Retirements and medical exemptions

Every year, school administrators work to fill positions at the end of August, ahead of the new school year. This year, Beauvais-St-Pierre said, the schools served by her union members have 450 positions open for substitute teachers, compared to 160 last year.

"We don't have 450 people who can fill them," she said.

Positions typically open up at this time each year because of retirements, sick leave or resignations, Yetman said. The pandemic could mean more retirements, and other teachers seeking exemptions because of medical conditions, she said.

The school system was already feeling a strain for several years before the pandemic, Yetman said, with not enough people studying education to fill a range of jobs.

"There's a shortage of educational specialists, psychologists, specialists," she said. "It's not just teachers we're worried about — it's the whole system that we're worried about."

Roberge acknowledged the problem on Thursday, saying that shortages in some regions are "something that concern me and it will take a few years to get through."

He pointed to certain service centres, such as Marguerite-Bourgeoys, west of Montreal, and those in Longueuil, that have filled their staffing requirements, as cause for optimism. "We haven't gotten past the shortage yet," Roberge said, "but the situation is improving."

"Teachers haven't returned to work yet," he said. "We can't say teachers are missing if they haven't even returned to school, and while we are still hiring them."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio and Radio-Canada

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