Substitute teacher shortages are plaguing schools during the pandemic


Depending where you’re living in Canada, a shortage of teachers has been a perennial issue for schools. However, COVID-19 has made it worse, spreading the problem out to more classrooms and requiring both short-term solutions as well as longer-lasting efforts to fill the gap.

A shortage of teachers has been a perennial issue in some Canadian schools, but COVID-19 has made it worse, spreading the problem to more classrooms. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Depending where you’re living in Canada, a shortage of teachers has been a perennial issue for schools. However, COVID-19 has made it worse, spreading the problem to more classrooms and prompting education experts to call for both short-term solutions as well as longer-lasting efforts to fill the gap.

“We have a chronic teacher shortage that has become a serious crisis during the pandemic,” said educational consultant and researcher Paul Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax. 

There’s been an ongoing shortage of supply teachers in areas like math and French, for instance. “But now it’s spread to all areas,” he said.

“Now it is an absolute emergency because you need to find people in a hurry to fill positions…. Parents are anxious, kids are on edge and the entire environment has changed.”

As the pandemic persists, it’s putting more pressure on school systems long challenged by a short supply of educational staff. 

“We do not have enough teachers to fill the positions that are out there available and, on top of that, we don’t have enough trained teachers on-call — our TTOCs — to fill in absences for when teachers need to take a leave,” said Joanne Hapke, president of the Prince George District Teachers’ Association. 

“Right now with COVID, we have teachers who are on leave for their health. We have [substitute teachers] who are choosing to not work at this time.”

A teacher is seen with Grade 1 students in Montreal. In cases where occasional substitutes cannot be found, some schools are pulling support teachers, other school staffers or administrators into classrooms. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

If no occasional teachers can be found, school administrators may jump into the classroom themselves or tap other staffers on-site to fill in — though that often causes additional problems, Hapke points out.  

“These are support teachers: these are teachers whose main job is to work with children who need extra [help] or who are vulnerable — and those services aren’t offered that day. Now, that support teacher is not getting their job done, is not getting their reports done and [those students] are not receiving services.”

Canada’s largest school district has learned how being short-staffed for school support roles can directly affect operations. This week, the Toronto District School Board announced it will grant approximately 290 unvaccinated staffers a temporary exemption from its COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

It made the decision because it could not find enough substitutes to fill their roles, with the group largely comprising “special needs assistants, designated early childhood educators and lunchroom supervisors, who supervise students including those with additional needs and/or provide safety or health-related support.”  

‘Uncertified’ hires to fill in 

In areas where a shortage of educators is most pronounced, district officials may be relying on hiring uncertified supply teachers. Hapke said this can be difficult decision, since a certified teacher typically spends five to six years specifically studying for a career in education in college or university, and continually upgrades with professional development and new training. 

Yet some areas in B.C. are employing uncertified staffers in classrooms “not just on a day-by-day basis, but all year long,” she said.

Norah Marsh, director of education for the Durham District School Board, says she started her career in education as an uncertified emergency supply teacher during university. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

Southern Ontario’s Durham District School Board, which covers both rural and urban communities, is also struggling with a need to rapidly boost its supply teacher roster amid significant population growth in recent years. 

At the end of August, officials learned they’d be about 1,500 students above earlier projections for the school year, according to Norah Marsh, the DDSB’s director of education.

“So we hired almost 500 permanent full-time teachers to be in classes for September,” she said, which meant tapping deeply into its roster of occasional teachers.

It’s left them “feeling the crunch” with a depleted list of candidates to sub in throughout the school year, she said, so the board posted an ad searching for “uncertified emergency supply teachers,” seeking candidates enrolled in a university program or who have a university degree as well as experience working or volunteering with children and teens. 

The board expects an influx of recent grads to emerge from local teacher-training programs in December and hopes to attract more people considering a job in education, Marsh said. She noted that way back as a second-year university student, she “fell in love with the classroom” after taking a job as an unqualified occasional teacher.

Schools will always look for a certified supply teacher first, she added, and uncertified substitutes will not be used for long-term absences in their district.

“When a teacher is away for a day, they have to prepare the entire day in terms of lessons, materials, resources, the strategies to be used if there’s collaboration occurring, who’s working with who,” Marsh said. 

“Really, what the occasional teacher is doing that day is answering questions as they arise, making sure students are safe and happy and continuing with their learning.”

‘When a teacher is away for a day, they have to prepare the entire day in terms of lessons,’ Marsh says. What supply teachers do, she added, is ensure students are ‘continuing with their learning.’ (Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle via The Associated Press)

‘Planning for these worst-case scenarios’

Provinces and territories have made slight moves to address the issue. For example, the Ontario government announced in early 2021 it would temporarily allow students close to completing teacher-education programs to work as supply teachers. 

Retired teachers have traditionally been the most reliable source for substitute teachers, noted Halifax consultant and researcher Bennett, and different jurisdictions have increased the set number of days these retirees can work as substitutes.

However, many recently retired teachers — typically aged 56 to 65 years old, he said — have declined to accept substitute gigs during the pandemic because of the increased risk of illness due to their age.

WATCH | Designated subs, promising ‘taxi squads’ could boost supply teacher shortage

How to tackle supply teacher shortages, in the short and longer term

Educational consultant and researcher Paul Bennett shares some potential solutions, including keeping substitutes at the ready and reaching out to supply teachers with career development opportunities . 1:19

Given all these challenges, school leaders must get proactive, says Bennett, who is also an adjunct professor of education at St. Mary’s University. 

COVID-19 could be the first of many major disruptions to education, so “we have to start planning for these worst-case scenarios.”   

In the short term, Bennett favours calling upon full-time school staffers to cover off short absences and admin keeping a rotation of “regular” substitutes that serve just two or three schools each year and are more familiar to students — something he says is already happening during the pandemic in many areas.

In the longer run, he wants to see boards building squads of high-quality substitutes by offering more security, opportunities for career development and potential for promotion. 

‘Respect needs to be put back into the profession,’ says Joanne Hapke, president of the Prince George District Teachers’ Federation. (Submitted by Joanne Hapke)

Back in B.C., where Hapke is looking forward to getting back into the classroom as a primary teacher next fall, she believes there’s a need to attract a fresh wave of people to teacher education programs and wants to see more incentives from boards struggling to find educators, such as student loan forgiveness, northern living allowances and housing support.

“Our work needs to be supported, needs to be recognized,” Hapke said. “Respect needs to be put back into the profession.”

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