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Lack of teachers will mean 'tough decisions' this year, says Yukon education official

Students in Yukon head back to class in just over a week — some even sooner — and the department of Education is still desperately hoping to fill more than two dozen vacant teaching positions.

Yukon had 25 vacant teaching positions as of Friday, with vast majority in rural schools

The Robert Service School in Dawson City, Yukon, is one of many of the territory's schools with job postings right now. Classes start in Dawson City on Thursday, while most other Yukon students return to class the following week. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

Students in Yukon head back to class in just over a week — some even sooner — and the department of Education is still desperately hoping to fill more than two dozen vacant teaching positions.

"It's not an ideal scenario," said Nicole Morgan, Yukon's deputy minister of education.

"Of course, our dream would be to have all of our positions filled with caring and qualified educators. But that's not the option that's available to us right now."

Morgan said on Friday morning that there were 25 vacant teaching positions across the territory — four of them in Whitehorse, and 21 in rural communities. She said that last year at this time, there were eight vacant teaching positions, with three of them in Whitehorse and five in rural communities.

The lack of teachers forces some "tough decisions," Morgan said. 

She said the priority is to have teachers assigned to subjects and classrooms. That means that some "non-enrolling" educators — counsellors, learning assistants — could be moved into classroom roles. 

Yukon deputy education minister Nicole Morgan, seen here earlier this year. Vacant teaching positions are not ideal, she said, but 'we know the impact is far greater if we don't have schools open.' (Jackie Hong/CBC)

The priority, Morgan said, is to ensure that schools are open. For most Yukon students, classes start on Aug. 22, though some rural schools open a bit later. In Dawson City, school starts on Thursday. 

"We will be opening schools up on time, because we do know how important it is to make sure that students are able to continue their learning. So while it's not ideal, we are prepared to open up," Morgan said.

"As we know throughout the pandemic, the last three school years, that these adjustments that we have to make do have different unintended consequences to them. We know the impact is far greater if we don't have schools open."

The department also currently has a job posting for a coordinator of teacher recruitment.

'This is huge,' says head of teachers' union

Ted Hupe, president of the Yukon Association of Education Professionals, said earlier this week that he couldn't express how worried he was. He was also frustrated trying to get answers from the Education department about what the school year will look like.

"I don't think we've ever faced a situation like this before ... this is huge," he said.

"My stomach is churning when I hear a principal saying, 'I do not have a teacher lined up for this particular classroom and I can't get a hold of anybody at H.R. And they're starting to, well, I don't want to use the word 'panic,' but the level of concern and worry is at an all-time high with our administrators."

Ted Hupe, president of the Yukon Teachers Association, said this week he was very worried about the job vacancies, and what they will mean for vulnerable students who need more support. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Hupe believes that the most vulnerable students — those who need extra support — are bound to suffer.

"The students that require extra, augmented learning programming will not get it. They will be grouped into a regular classroom," he said.

"Inclusive education requires a full complement of staff. And what will happen is, it will compromise learning and it will compromise the already vulnerable students that we have in our schools." 

Melanie Bennett, meanwhile, is also deeply concerned about rural students. Bennett is the executive director of the First Nations Education Directorate, which has worked to establish the territory's new school board. Starting next week, the Yukon First Nation School Board takes over operation of eight of the territory's schools, all but two of them in rural communities.

"We do have a number of positions to fill, and we're just trying our best to be optimistic," Bennett said.

Housing plays a role

Of particular concern for her is Chief Zzeh Gittlit school in Old Crow, Yukon, which is one of the eight facilities to be governed by the new board.

"It is the most remote school, and they have a high number of staff that are unhired right now, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the principal," Bennett said.

According to Morgan, rural schools are lately suffering from a domino effect when teachers are hired in Whitehorse. 

"Each time we're filling a position, it's creating a domino, especially if there are positions where people are coming in to Whitehorse and we see that impact then happen in rural Yukon," Morgan said.

Housing adds to the difficulty. Many rural communities simply don't have adequate housing for new teaching recruits. And according to Bennett, it's become an issue in the capital city as well.

"It's getting more difficult in Whitehorse for educators to find housing, and almost too expensive to come to the Yukon. So that's one of the factors of why they are not applying, or why are they're choosing to go to other districts," Bennett said. 

'It's getting more difficult in Whitehorse for educators to find housing, and almost too expensive to come to the Yukon,' said Melanie Bennett, the executive director for the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate. (Submitted by Melanie Bennett)

Morgan is keen to stress that Yukon is not alone in its struggle to hire teachers. It's a national issue, she said, and education officials across the country expect it to go on for a while yet.

"We're all preparing for this phenomena that we're seeing to last a few more years yet. We hope it ends sooner than that, but we are going to be prepared and continue to adjust our recruitment approaches," she said.

That may include new incentives for teachers to relocate to Yukon, partnerships with post-secondary education programs, or finding ways to help new recruits find housing in Whitehorse or rural communities, she said.

In the meantime, Morgan is reassuring parents about the upcoming school year. 

"We know we can do this," she said. "We've been through three school years with some pretty significant interruptions."

"We know it's going to take all of our combined efforts. But we've also learned what the most important piece of the conversation here is, and that's students." 

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Elyn Jones

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