Schools scramble to plug staffing shortages as teachers self-isolate

Ottawa-area school boards are struggling to keep classes going as COVID-19 self-isolation measures put pressure on school staffing in the region.

COVID-19 regulations forcing boards to cancel classes, even close schools

In-person classes for grade 7 and 8 students at Franco-Cité high school in Ottawa are going virtual for two days. (Radio-Canada)

Ottawa-area school boards are struggling to keep classes going as COVID-19 self-isolation measures place mounting pressure on staffing in the region.

Around 450 students in grades 7 and 8 at École secondaire catholique Franco-Cité, part of Ottawa's French-language Catholic school board, were forced to transition from in-class to virtual learning Wednesday and Thursday this week because their teachers had to self-isolate after possible exposure to COVID-19.

That follows the one-day closure of an entire Catholic school in Kemptville, Ont., last Friday after two people at the school tested positive for COVID-19, and subsequent isolation measures led to a shortage of available staff.

"With COVID-19 having a big impact on the teachers being either asked to stay home by the public health authority or staying home because they might have symptoms or their children have symptoms, it's having a big impact with teachers being present at school," said Jason Dupuis, superintendent of education for the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE).

"Right now we're having a hard time finding also supply teachers to replace these teachers who should be at school."

Dire staffing situation

The staffing situation is so dire at the CECCE that the school board sent a letter to parents on Tuesday appealing to parents and others in the school community to express interest in doing temporary paid work at CECCE schools, mainly in supervisory roles during classes, lunch breaks or before and after school hours.

"These are tough times and we need to find the solutions," said Dupuis.

The school board may continue to cancel classes or even close schools due to a lack of supply teachers to replace teachers who are isolating at home, warned Jason Dupuis, superintendent of Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE). (Hillary Johnstone/CBC)

Similar staffing challenges are playing out at school boards across the city.

Ottawa's English Catholic board is seeing an increase in the number of unfilled teaching jobs, spokesperson Sharlene Hunter told CBC in an emailed statement.

Hunter said the board has 750 occasional teachers to fill absences, but many are only available to work 50 days per school year due to pension regulations.

"It is apparent that some teacher absences remain unfilled each day because our occasional teachers are currently not selecting these assignments," Hunter wrote. 

While the board is reassigning non-classroom and other school staff to fill as many vacancies as possible, it also relies on the support of "unqualified individuals" such as students in university and teacher's college, Hunter said.

Supply teachers limiting assignments 

Ottawa's largest school board warned parents in a letter last week that a shortage of available supply teachers to cover absences could lead to the cancellation of some virtual classes, or even school closures.

"This year, the shortage of teachers is greater than usual," wrote Camille Williams-Taylor, director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB).

"Without sufficient teacher coverage for students there are health and safety concerns, particularly in elementary schools."

Williams-Taylor said a major contributing factor is the requirement that teachers self-isolate for 14 days because of a possible exposure to COVID-19.

"An occasional teacher is needed for all of those days," Williams-Taylor wrote. 

The problem does not stem from a shortage in the number of supply teachers, according to David Wildman, who represents around 1,400 occasional teachers in the OCDSB as president of the Ottawa Carleton Elementary Occasional Teachers' Association.

Wildman said many of those teachers are limiting the number of schools they work at in order to limit their potential exposure to COVID-19. As a result, schools are finding they have more gaps to fill than there are teachers stepping forward to fill them.

"The occasional teachers are balancing their need to make a living and pay their bills with where they go," Wildman said. "[They] are making their own decision and most of them are staying at one or two schools."

Wildman said the board is adding more teachers to its roster of occasional teachers, but the process is delayed by the time it takes to complete interviews, reference checks and criminal background checks.

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