Nova Scotia

Teachers' union raises concerns about staff changes at Halifax-area schools

Education officials in the Halifax area are downplaying concerns by the teachers' union that staffing plans for September amount to cuts, reassuring educators there will be no change to services for students. 

Halifax Regional Centre for Education says no layoffs expected, student services will remain the same

Citadel High School in Halifax is one of the high schools likely to see changes related to unassigned instructional time. (Robert Short/CBC)

Education officials in the Halifax area are downplaying concerns by the teachers' union that staffing plans for September amount to cuts, reassuring educators there will be no layoffs or change to services for students. 

The issue centres on unassigned instructional time, or UIT. It's something unique to teachers in the Halifax area, predominantly at the high school level, and represents work time used for school-related tasks other than classroom teaching.

Those tasks are assigned by the school, although the unassigned time itself is not part of the collective agreement. Now it appears that starting in September, there will be less UIT for Halifax-area teachers.

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said teachers assigned UIT-related tasks provide a variety of functions, including monitoring lunchrooms and hallways, overseeing student-related activities and providing extra help.

'Short-sighted decision'

He said it makes sense to have teachers, who are familiar with the students and more attuned to situations that could turn into a problem, doing these duties. 

"Staff helps make sure we have a respectful environment, not a violent one," Wozney said in an interview.

"This is a very short-sighted decision, particularly when we take into account the systemic problems that HRCE [Halifax Regional Centre for Education] has with recruitment and retention of folks to come and be in school buildings as key members of the staff to make sure that kids are safe and supported."

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said he's concerned about what the changes could mean to student services. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Wozney said he's concerned about who might take over these duties, given how difficult it can be to secure volunteers to do some of this work.

"The question becomes how are you providing equivalent or better supports and who is doing it?" he said.

Teachers receiving surplus notices

With UIT being decreased or eliminated at schools for the coming school year, Wozney said some teachers are now receiving surplus notices and are concerned about what autumn will bring for them.

But Elwin LeRoux, executive director of the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, said in an interview that what's happening with staffing notices is no different than what happens at this time every year.

As the centre gathers information about enrolment for the coming school year, decisions are made about what staffing complement is required at each school.

LeRoux said they anticipate fewer students at many high schools in September because this year's graduating class is larger than normal, mostly on account of it representing the first cohort where the entry age for school was dropped by three months.

As for changes to the way UIT is used, LeRoux said the aim is for teachers to be doing what they do best, as much as possible.

"We have used teachers to do a variety of things, but the best place for teachers to be is teaching our children. That's what they do incredibly well," he said. 

HRCE doesn't expect layoffs or staff cuts

UIT is not the same as marking and prep time. In the most recent collective agreement, signed back in November, teachers secured an increase in prep time to 12.5 per cent of their schedule from 10 per cent.

Teachers across the province are getting that increase, which is leading to the need to hire more teachers. The Education Department estimates 70 new teachers will be hired for the coming school year.

LeRoux said he expects no layoffs or staff cuts within the region for September, and that anyone receiving a surplus notice will have a job for the coming school year.

He also said he expects there will continue to be UIT, albeit less of it than in the past, and he said schools will determine on a case-by-case basis how best to use it.

Where other resources can be used to provide services some teachers have provided in the past — the Halifax region is getting 22 new guidance counsellors, for example — LeReux said that's what they will do. In other cases, however, he said it might still make sense to have teachers filling certain non-classroom roles as part of their work schedule.

Union wants a 1-year pause on changes

Wozney, meanwhile, said he worries the decision is being made with little notice or consultation and in a way that's creating concern about what students, their families and teachers can expect for the coming year.

He's calling on the employer not to change the UIT format for September and instead do a more thorough analysis before making changes.

"They're basically getting more blood from the teaching stone," he said. "So they're going to make those teachers teach more and take that flexibility away from the schools to support students."

A statement from the Education Department said the changes to instructional time at 16 Halifax-area high schools would bring them in line with schools in the rest of the province.