PEI

Omicron wave increasing strain in P.E.I. schools, say Opposition, teachers' federation

About 150 staff were absent from P.E.I. public schools on Tuesday. That's what Education Minister Natalie Jameson told the legislature in a response to a question from opposition education critic Lynne Lund on Tuesday afternoon. 

Concerns raised about current sustainability of education system with spike in cases

P.E.I. Education Minister Natalie Jameson says the omicron wave has been the most challenging time faced by the education system. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

About 150 staff were absent from P.E.I. public schools on Tuesday.

That's what Education Minister Natalie Jameson told the legislature in response to a question from Opposition education critic Lynne Lund on Tuesday afternoon. 

Jameson says staff from both the Public Schools Branch (PSB) and Commission scolaire de langue française worked until midnight Monday to ensure all vacancies were filled.

"This is the most challenging time we've had as an education system," Jameson said.

We are hearing from people all through the school system who are very worried.— Green MLA Lynne Lund

"We're four days away from March break. Everybody's going to need a deep breath and some fresh air … but we are getting through this. We haven't had to close down any schools."

And while no schools have closed, Lund said she still takes issue with the high absence rates. It's the second time she's raised the issue in the past week.

"The health-care system isn't the only system we have to be worried about overwhelming. We are hearing from teachers, we are hearing from educational assistants, we are hearing from people all through the school system who are very worried," Lund said in an interview after the exchange in question period.

"We are hearing of autism consultants who are being pulled from their work. We are hearing from occupational therapists who are being pulled from supporting students, from speech pathologists, from psychologists who are being told to cancel appointments with students so they can go sub."

Absence rates up again

As of Tuesday's reported numbers, about 1 in 36 Islanders currently have COVID-19. 

Jameson says she's been been working '24 hours a day' to ensure schools stay open. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

Officials with the PSB said that further increase in COVID-19 cases on the Island is creating even more pressure when it comes to staffing.

So far this week, P.E.I.'s English schools have seen a staff absence rate of 16.5 per cent, compared with a typical rate of about 10 per cent at this time of year.

The PSB said an average of 17.8 per cent of students are not in class.

A typical rate of absence would be about 10 per cent.

"This is exactly what the Teachers' Federation warned about … they had said, if we don't take this seriously, we're going to see a system collapse," Lund said.

The P.E.I. Teachers' Federation (PEITF) also spoke with CBC News Tuesday and said it is feeling the pressure brought on by the "huge" workload.

"Most of the concerns are around the strain on the system at the present time and the challenges," said federation president Aldene Smallman.

"The lack of available substitutes have meant some services such as EAL supports and other specialists cannot be offered, as those individuals are asked to cover sometimes in classrooms across the province."

The Public Schools Branch says rising cases on the Island are creating more pressure and staffing challenges. (CBC)

In January, the federation had asked the province to delay its back-to-class plans due to Omicron, which it did. The federation also raised issues with classroom sizes, and asked that student and teacher access to vaccinations, booster shots and N95 masks be prioritized as part of the reopening plan. 

"None of those things were done," Lund said. 

"So if I were the minister of education today, the first thing I would be doing is calling for a meeting with the P.E.I. Teachers' Federation. I would be asking for feedback from teachers on where pressure points are for them, on how we can help because teachers are burnt out."

'I have worked 24 hours a day'

Minister Jameson was not available for an interview, but defended her efforts on the floor of the legislature and asked if Lund would prefer for the schools to close.

"I have worked 24 hours a day for the past couple of months to make sure that these schools continued, so our kids could be in the classroom, so our staff could be in the classroom … I would love for [Lund] to sit in my seat for one day to understand," Jameson said.

"The PEITF has a role, everyone has a role to play in this. They voice their concerns. But the amount of people who have come forward to me and said you know, minister, it's not perfect, but it's working and our kids are being educated and they're there with their classmates."

Green MLA and Opposition education critic Lynne Lund says teachers, educational assistants and other specialists have been in touch to express their concerns about the current situation. (Ken Linton/CBC)

"The minister needs to be concerned about this," Lund told CBC after the exchange in the house. 

"She needs to stop patting herself on the back, and she needs to have a conversation with these teachers, hear their concerns and start putting in place some sort of plan that's going to address these things before we end up in a real crisis."

Lund said that based on what she's heard from teachers, the situation has already reached an unsustainable level.

"I think the minister is getting into dangerous rhetoric here. She knows how important it is to keep schools open," she said.

"She also knows that she is gambling by letting them get to this state."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola MacLeod grew up on P.E.I., where she is now a multi-platform reporter and producer for CBC. Got a story? Email nicola.macleod@cbc.ca

With files from Angela Walker

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