Saskatchewan

Saskatoon Public Schools redeploying staff amid rising COVID-19 cases

Saskatoon’s public school division is redeploying staff to take over everything from classroom teaching to caretaking, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases and teacher shortages since the holidays.

439 cases self-reported between Jan. 4 and 12, school division says

Saskatoon’s public school division is being forced to move around staff, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases and teacher shortages since the holidays. (Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press)

The Saskatoon Public School Division says it's redeploying staff to take over everything from classroom teaching to caretaking, due to a recent jump in COVID-19 cases and a shortage of teachers.

The school division said there were 439 positive cases self-reported to its schools in the first eight days back after the holidays.

In a letter to families on Wednesday, Saskatoon Public noted that total of cases is the same as it saw in the first four months of the school year. It attributed the sharp spike to the Omicron coronavirus variant and the reporting of positive results from at-home rapid tests.

The school division said the rising case volume is impacting its staff and disrupting some classes, forcing it to move around resources.

"To address staffing challenges, we are reassigning educational staff from other division positions to act as substitutes in classrooms," the letter outlined. "We are also redeploying staff from other support positions to fill in for caretaking and administrative staff in schools."

In an interview on CBC's Saskatoon Morning Thursday, Saskatoon Public's director of education, Shane Skjerven, said teachers are getting creative in managing the situation, but it hasn't been easy.

"I'm not going to speak for every individual staff member, but I think it's fair to say that, absolutely, they're tired — they're tired of this pandemic. It is stressful and there is increased pressure," he said. "But many continue to come to work every day and show up to do the best they can."

With 10 elementary school classes now online and other students or teachers absent, Skjerven estimated most Saskatoon public schools are between 75 and 80 per cent full these days.

He said bus transportation hasn't seen any substantial disruptions so far, but school administrators continue to monitor it.

"We have our contingency plans in place as best we can with the resources we have, and we'll continue to adapt," Skjerven said, noting assessment meetings are held multiple times a day. "We're ready to pivot, if we need to."

LISTEN | Saskatoon Morning Leisha Grebinski speaks with Shane Skjerven, director of Saskatoon Public Schools 

Other school divisions facing similar challenges

As of Thursday morning, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS) said it's had a total of 460 COVID-19 cases reported since Monday.

The division said it's also seeing an increase in staff absences, mostly because they're ill, isolating, or taking care of ill or isolating children. 

"So far, we're able to reallocate staff within any given school to cover for absences that cannot be filled with substitutes," GSCS spokesperson Derrick Kunz wrote in an email to CBC News.

"That might mean the level of specialized services for students [like extra literacy supports] is reduced. We're not there yet, but realistically, we may get to a point where we need to reassign staff or shift resources more broadly."

Ten classrooms within GSCS have also shifted to remote learning, Kunz noted.

In Regina, the Catholic school division — which, according to its website, has had 186 COVID-19 cases reported from Monday to Thursday — is in a similar situation.

"We have been able to continue to run our schools safely because of the creativity and flexibility of our staff," Regina Catholic spokesperson Twylla West said in an email to CBC News.

She noted some educators have taken on different duties when necessary. For example, there have been times when a learning catalyst teacher may end up teaching a classroom or a nutrition worker steps in as an instructional assistant.

"It's not ideal, because those employees are already playing roles we consider vital, but it's allowed us to maintain face to face learning thus far," she said, adding that no Regina Catholic classes have had to move to online learning.

Regina Public Schools — which no longer posts daily case numbers but rather lists the number of schools affected on its website — said it hasn't had to face "significant" reallocations of educational staff or operational disruptions so far.

However, a spokesperson noted that five Regina Public elementary school classes have had to move to remote learning since Monday.

Province 'trying to invent the plane as it's flying': STF

The Saskatchewan government said it acknowledges COVID-19 case numbers in the community will have an impact on schools.

"There will be some disruption to in-class learning," the Ministry of Education wrote in an emailed statement Thursday. 

"However, with a layered approach of continued masking, access to rapid tests, increased sanitation, cohorting, and students and staff staying home when they are sick, schools are providing as safe a learning environment as possible."

The ministry said an education sector committee called the "Business Continuity Planning Team" has recently been created to guide Saskatchewan schools through the pandemic's challenges.

The group had its first two meetings earlier this week, the ministry said, and it will continue to meet regularly.

The committee is made up of officials from the Ministry of Education, the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, the League of Educational Administrators, Directors and Superintendents, and the Saskatchewan Association of School Business Officials.

Patrick Maze, the president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, said the province needs to listen to educators when it comes to keeping schools safe during the pandemic. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation (STF) said it would have liked to have a seat at that table.

"If you're not going to consider things from a teacher's perspective, then you have to assume there's going to be issues with implementation," said STF president Patrick Maze. "We're getting a bit frustrated because the government is trying to invent the plane as it's flying and they really don't seem to have a plan for education."

Maze said if the province would have taken the STF's advice and delayed the start of in-class learning by at least a week, as most jurisdictions did, Saskatchewan schools wouldn't be dealing with the current level of COVID-19 cases and teacher shortages.

"It would have been more responsible to take a few days, just like every other province did in Canada, and assess the situation and make sure that we can offer a safe education to our students," he said. "Unfortunately, we didn't do that — and now we're paying the price."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessie Anton

Journalist

Jessie Anton is a Regina-based journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. She began sharing stories from across the province on television, radio and online in 2016, after getting her start in the rural weekly newspaper world. Email her at jessie.anton@cbc.ca.

With files from Saskatoon Morning

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