While concerns about COVID-19 variants and predictions of a third wave loom, many experts believe schools must stay open. The pressures for schools to stay open or reopen has existed since late spring 2020.
Teachers have faced immense pressure from politicians, health-care professionals, parents and even the general public. On the one hand, we have seen advocacy and awareness from child development professionals and politicians that schools are essential to support the well-being of students. Politicians and policy researchers have also noted that schools are essential to the vitality of the economy. Yet, at the same time, provisions to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19 have been wanting.
This is the case while even before the pandemic, teachers were already showing signs of being stretched thin. Research from Alberta shows an uptick in reports of mental health distress from teachers, educational assistant and administrators. Ontario teachers have been taking more sick days than they did almost ten years ago, a situation that many have related to increased classroom demands.
The increased pressures of the pandemic are taking their toll on teachers. Many teachers’ emotional well-being and mental health are suffering: the Canadian Federation of Teachers conducted a survey in the fall of more than 15,000 teachers and found that 70 per cent of them reported being “very stressed, struggling to cope and increasingly feeling unhappy.”
Substitute teachers and viral transmission
Teachers are concerned about being vectors for COVID-19 transmission, as are substitute teachers who often work in different schools.
Across the country, in places like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Ontario, substitute teachers do not have paid sick leave or employer-paid medical benefits.
The number of available replacement teachers has been significantly reduced, even though the need for them is greater. And in many areas there is an extreme shortage of substitute teachers.
Across Canada, education ministries and school boards have the monumental task of averting a crisis. If next year sees a departure of those who are emotionally exhausted, and there is an inadequate supply of new teachers or substitute teachers to mitigate what could easily be a higher than usual attrition rate, student learning will suffer.
There needs to be a commitment to develop and implement supports to address increased levels of teacher stress and anxiety to ensure they don’t leave the profession prematurely. In some provinces, teacher attrition in the first five years of a teacher’s career can be as high as 40 per cent.
Reasons cited for the reduced number of currently available teachers include the rising number of teacher retirements, reduced funding to teacher education programs and the reduction in applicant interest as a result of being told there were no jobs.
COVID-19 has only made teacher shortages worse. As September 2020 approached, some teachers chose to prioritize their health and families and took leaves or did not return to the profession. Others chose early retirement, and some, who under normal circumstances might have registered as substitute teachers, chose not to.
Additionally, prior to the pandemic, a teacher might have taken one day off for a cold, returning the following day. Now they must get a COVID-19 test. The president of the Saskatoon Teachers’ Association relayed in January that this has meant taking on an average of two days to schedule and two more days for the results. That’s a minimum of four days off with the best-case scenario of a negative test result.
Growing safety concern for schools
A Saskatchewan school board noted that in December 2020, it experienced a chronic shortfall of replacement staff due to more employee absences and a reduced pool of available substitute staff. Staffing availability is a growing safety concern.
Saskatchewan and Ontario are now offering final-year bachelor of education students temporary teaching permits to substitute teach.
Manitoba has created a 30-hour program that teaches basic classroom skills for people who hold a limited teaching permit to address staff shortages. Prince Edward Island has removed the annual fee for a temporary non-certified substitute teacher permit to encourage more people to apply. In Québec, British Columbia and Ontario, school boards are imploring retirees and non-certified instructors to fill the gap.
Risking one’s life?
Teachers entered the profession to help students learn. That hasn’t changed. But many feel now like they are being asked to risk their own lives, and those of their family members.
The emotional weight of the risks educators are exposed to is increased by the uncertainties they encounter daily. These include shifting public health or school policies, fluctuating attendance or increased duties such as covering other classes and teaching combined classes to cover for absent teachers. Such changes to routines have not only reduced the preparation and planning time required to meet students’ needs, but have also increased teachers’ risk of viral exposure.
Even though education is a local and provincial matter, we recommend the establishment of an expert national roundtable that listens to educators to develop a more comprehensive national framework. Such a framework should consider both the pre- and post-pandemic well-being of educators. We need to approach pandemic educational recovery with a national strategy, looking backward to the factors shaping how we got here, and forward in anticipation of what may come.