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System under strain

Availability of substitute teachers an ongoing challenge for many schools and divisions

March 17, 2021 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in the small town of Veteran, in east central Alberta.

Retired teacher and sometime substitute Jerri Perrin is on the phone with a friend/colleague who has called to see if Perrin can take a job for the following week. Perrin cannot, so she and her friend are brainstorming, trying to figure out who they can recruit.

This may seem like an unusual topic for a weekend social call, but it’s become almost routine in Veteran due to COVID and its impact on the supply of substitute teachers and the demand for their services.

“There are times when subs are very hard to come by,” Perrin says. “When you’re needed, you’re needed multiple places.”

Throughout the province, anecdotal evidence suggests that the supply of substitute teachers is down and demand is up, at least in some locations, creating a difficult situation for school leaders, teachers and substitutes themselves.

Within Edmonton Public Schools, the demand for substitute teachers (called supply teachers) has been higher than in previous years; however, the reasons for sub jobs has shifted. Rather than seeking substitutes to attend to professional development and personal business, teachers are now seeking relief mainly due to sickness and the need to isolate, said human resources director Trish Kolotyluk.

“It’s been a difficult year for everyone, and if we didn’t have the people who were willing to do the work of supply teachers, we wouldn’t be able to have a teacher in front of kids, and that’s our main priority,” Kolotyluk said.

Many substitutes are choosing not to work or are limiting the number of schools they attend, due to concerns about contracting or transmitting COVID. The result is that officials within Edmonton Public have devoted a lot of effort to keeping its central roster of substitutes healthy.

Despite these efforts, the division has seen an increase in the number of sub jobs that are going unfilled. The division normally has a fill rate of nearly 100 per cent. This year it’s 95.9 per cent.

The supply–demand crunch was particularly challenging in November and December when the number of COVID cases was spiking. The division responded by stepping up its recruitment of December education graduates.

“We’ve tried to ensure that kids have a teacher in front of them whether it’s in person or online and [substitutes] are really appreciated … we’re so glad that they’ve decided to come and join our division because we really need them, especially now,” Kolotyluk said.

Allison McCaffrey, an administrator at a K–9 school within Calgary Separate, said she’s had a relatively trouble-free year, being able to find qualified subs when needed.

“Overall, from my perspective, it’s been a positive year. I don’t think it’s the same for every school,” McCaffrey said. “I guess our school has just been lucky that we’re either at the forefront or at the tail end of when things go around the area.”

One drawback she’s witnessed this year has been the requirement for teachers to isolate when COVID cases emerge.

“I feel awfully bad when we have to put a sub in isolation because that potentially takes away their income stream,” McCaffrey said.

ATA advocacy

Income security and access to benefits for substitute teachers is among several concerns that the ATA has been raising with the minister of education for the past year, said president Jason Schilling.

He noted that not many school boards have been willing to make arrangements to ensure substitutes are well looked after.

“Every time we meet with ministry staff we talk about issues with substitute teachers,” Schilling said.

Schilling has heard from administrators from throughout the province who are struggling to find the subs they need. For example, one principal had a COVID outbreak that resulted in 10 staff and dozens of students isolating at home. The principal was only able to find four substitutes.

One division that’s done things differently is Edmonton Catholic. The division hired dedicated replacement teachers for each school, based on school population. These teachers have been placed on temporary contracts, with access to benefits, and attend school every day just like other staff.

When a member of the regular teaching staff has to leave, a replacement teacher is there to step in. If they aren’t needed for substitute duty, they assist with a variety of tasks, including assisting teachers in class.

Although the system has been costly to the division, it’s reduced the amount of cohorting and brought stability and predictability to schools, said Edmonton Catholic local president Sandra Haltiner.

“So far it’s been a resounding success and something that we really applaud our school division for doing,” she said. “It’s been an overall great experience. I wish we could have it forever.” ❚

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