PEI

Substitute teachers anxious as P.E.I. school closures extended once again

Substitute teachers are again facing uncertainty as to when they will be able to return to work after the province decided to extend school closures once again.

Some teachers considering leaving the profession if situation doesn't improve

The province said Thursday it's delaying a return to in-class learning until at least Jan. 24. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Substitute teachers are again facing uncertainty as to when they will be able to return to work after the province decided to extend school closures once again.

The province said Thursday it's delaying a return to in-class learning until at least Jan. 24 due to rising COVID-19 cases.

The decision leaves some Island substitute teachers in the lurch, with some saying they will remain without any income while closures continue, and that they are unsure when they'll be able to work again.

"When schools are shut down and it's online, there's virtually not a need for substitute teachers," said Cory Stevenson, a member of the substitute teacher committee for the P.E.I. Teachers' Federation.

"The federation has reminded us of the importance of substitute teachers, as have the [Public Schools Branch] and the government at times. But you know, when push comes to shove, it's hard to just sit home or wait and hope for the best."

Stevenson said substitute teachers hoped they could be "put to use" as classes resumed online.

Students have already missed a lot of instructional time over the last couple of years.— Cory Stevenson

He said that closures were always a possibility, a plan could have been in place before the Christmas break where they could've let substitutes work with some students online or even in-person with small groups once classes started again.

"Students have already missed a lot of instructional time over the last couple of years," he said.

"I think there needs to be a really strong grasp of the educational problems on P.E.I., and instead of having substitute teachers ... sitting at home just hoping that classes resume, that we could be put to use."

PSB moving to offer supports

Stevenson said they had been initially hopeful after the Public Schools Branch (PSB) put out a call for substitute teachers, which he said alluded to work with small groups, or one-on-one work with struggling students. But that there was no followup to that.

In a statement, the PSB said it's currently not seeing a shortage in the number of substitutes or casuals available. However, it is anticipating absenteeism will rise once schools reopen, and said it's currently looking into how to address the issue, such as keeping a roster of itinerant substitutes for more stability as in-class learning resumes.

The PSB also said it's working to grant some casual and substitute employees access to the P.E.I. emergency payment program, which offers a one-time lump sum of $500 to P.E.I. residents whose employment has been impacted by COVID-19.

Stevenson welcomed some of these measures, but said substitute teachers expected more assurances there would be work for them while closures continue. The province announced Thursday that some substitutes would be called upon to help students next week with their at-home learning, but, at this point, Stevenson said he and other subs he's spoken to still haven't been told if, how, or when they'll be used. 

He said he's worried more substitutes will decide to leave for better opportunities in other provinces or quit the career altogether if conditions continue to deteriorate, which could become a big problem for the Island's "fragile" education system.

"We just saw it around Christmastime. Souris High had to close because there was a lack of substitute teachers that day. I know a couple of schools that I was in were only a couple of teachers away from having to close that day. So it's serious," he said.

"There's a lot of good teachers, you know, with a good education background, great with kids that are leaving the profession or are starting to threaten to leave the profession because of the unknowns, and that's a shame."

'Teaching is what I chose'

Leanne Doiron from Summerside has been a substitute teacher for about three years, so most of her time working as a sub has been throughout the pandemic.

"I've gotten familiar with going from [working each day] to again being home every day, being out of work," she said.

"There are substitute teachers that are part time, but in my case, it's a full-time job. So having to leave that for an undetermined time, the no-end-in-sight part of it is kind of difficult to grapple with as well, not having a timeline on it."

Doiron said she's been forced to file for unemployment insurance, which means her usual income has been cut in half.

She said that many times, she's considered leaving her career and doing something else.

"Quite often, the thought certainly comes to mind, and it's almost as quickly shot down," she said. 

"I'm university educated. I went and got my master's degree. I went abroad and got my teaching experience. Teaching is what I chose. I would never take a decision to leave that behind lightly at all."

Stevenson said he's heard from a lot of substitutes in P.E.I. who feel the same way.

"They do feel that there is a disparity happening kind of from all angles that, you know, teachers are not necessarily teachers, that substitute teachers are, being treated as second fiddle," he said.

"[They're] kind of always told to just hang on, that hopefully things will get better that, you know, you'll have work down the road. But when you're trying to raise a family or pay a mortgage, you know, it's easier said than done."

With files from Steve Bruce

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