North

The teacher is sick. Now what? Here's what head of N.W.T. Teachers' Association says

Week three of being back in the classroom just wrapped up for many teachers. Amid the new protocols, the reality when it comes to staffing and sickness during the pandemic means teachers might be spending more time out of the classroom.

If substitutes aren't available, schools might use their own staff resources, Matthew Miller says

Orange pylons mark proper physical distancing as students head back to class at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife on Aug. 31. The local teachers' association is getting steady calls from teachers looking for answers on sick leave, special leave and whether they can travel over the Christmas and spring breaks. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

Week three for many teachers of being back in the classroom just wrapped up in the N.W.T.

Amid the new protocols, the reality when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic means teachers might have to spend time out of the classroom if they get sick.

And in a region where substitute teachers can be far and few, what happens when a teacher can't come to class for days in a row?

Matthew Miller, president of the N.W.T. Teachers' Association, says there's a few things that could happen.

Whereas in the past, if teachers got the sniffles they "toughed it out," Miller says now that can't always be the case.

For example, when a teacher begins to feel sick at work with at least one major symptom or two minor symptoms of COVID-19, they have to ensure they have proper personal protective equipment on and head home immediately. Then they must contact public health who will let the teacher know what to do next.

In the case that teachers need to stay home, Miller says a substitute would be called in. 

Some of our teachers have not left the N.W.T. since December of 2019.- Matthew Miller, N.W.T. Teachers' Association

This option does present some challenges however, as the availability of substitute teachers varies from community to community, and with each year, he said.

"Sometimes there's lots of subs and in other years it's really hard to track people down," Miller said.

"I can see a higher demand for substitutes this year as teachers won't be toughing it out and are required to self-screen or remain at home until public health has approved them." 

This year, he says it's likely substitutes will be booked up in advance. In the past he said there have been regions that hire full time substitute teachers knowing that the demand is usually high.

"If there are people out there looking for work, this is a great opportunity to get into the schools," Miller said.

Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife. Miller, the head of the teachers' association says substitutes are often in high demand, so if a teacher gets sick, the school may need to use other resources. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

Support staff may need to step in

Miller said the intent is to keep schools open with students and teachers having face-to-face lessons as much as possible. Though he says there could be a point where schools can no longer operate, it would take a lot of steps before it gets to that.

For instance, if no substitutes are available, then schools would likely use "internal coverage," where other teachers in the school would cover classes during their assigned prep period. Support staff or specialty teachers could also take on the role of teacher if need be.

Miller says some of the classes could be shifted to a blended or online learning style during the time their teachers are at home. It's also possible that the grades would be prioritized, where some of the older students could be sent home with assigned work.

I can see a higher demand for substitutes this year as teachers won't be toughing it out.- Matthew Miller, N.W.T. Teachers' Association

Then, Miller says there's also breaks that need to be considered.

He says the association is getting steady calls from teachers looking for answers on sick leave, special leave and whether they can travel over the Christmas and spring breaks.

"There's a number of our educators that will want to travel to see family and friends. Some of our teachers have not left the N.W.T. since December of 2019," he said.

"Waiting two years to see family and friends is difficult."

The association has been working closely with labour relations, superintendents and the Department of Education Culture and Employment, to make sure that teachers are paid for sick leave, he said.

For now, Miller says there's a mixture of feelings in the schools, though overall, he hears it's a positive learning environment.

As for students, Miller says the guidelines have been taken seriously and as a result, kids have been understanding and co-operative of the expectations at school. 

For sick students, most schools are asking parents to monitor kids for either one "major symptom" of COVID-19 — fever, shortness of breath, or a dry cough — or two more common "minor symptoms." Those include aches, sore throat, runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, "general unease," or a loss of smell, taste or appetite.

Written based on an interview by Loren McGinnis, with files from John Last

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