A growing shortage of certified teachers has led the Chilliwack School District to hire unqualified teachers to temporarily fill vacancies.
"We are the first district in the Lower Mainland to use uncertified teachers," said Danielle Bennett, president of the Chilliwack Teachers' Association.
She says the city struggled to fill vacancies for certified substitute teachers to fill in day-to-day absences. Teachers previously in on-call positions were hired to fill a shortage of full-time contract teacher positions.
"So the district has taken the unprecedented action of hiring uncertified people to fill [temporary on-call] roles and currently we have about 50 people hired," said Bennett.
Katie Bartel, chair of the District Parent Advisory Council, says the shortages led to specialist teachers, like librarians and special needs teachers, being pulled from their regular posts to cover classrooms.
Bartel says when her daughter's teacher was sick for a month, there were four teachers cycling through class in a single day.
"Four meetings in one day with different people is a lot for an adult, let alone a kid," she said.
In a statement, Chilliwack's superintendent of schools said the hiring of uncertified short-term teachers is their response to "ensure staff and students can thrive."
"[The new hires have] positively impacted our school district and mitigated the issue of specialist teachers being pulled to cover regular classes," said Rohan Arul-pragasam.
Issue goes beyond 2 or 20 days, says education critic
According to the Ministry of Education, uncertified teachers are unable to work more than 20 consecutive days.
If they do, they are required to obtain a letter of permission through the Ministry's Teacher Regulation Branch. Currently less than 0.3 per cent of uncertified teachers are letter-of-permission holders.
Bennett says the school district is currently planning to schedule unqualified teachers for 19 days, give them a few days off, and call them again for another 19 days.
"So it was going to be cyclical, which seemed to [the Teachers' Association] to be a breach of what the School Act permits," she said.
Education critic for the B.C. Liberals Elenore Sturko say the issue goes beyond two or 20 days, as the newly hired staff don't have the basic qualifications to teach.
"We're talking about people who in some circumstances may not have had previous experience in a classroom," she said.
"It's impacting the classroom experience for our students and it's not fair to other teachers who are then expected to pick up the slack."
Bennett says the Teachers' Association is encouraging certified members to be as supportive as possible and help their unqualified peers, who are coming in without essential knowledge of classroom management and lesson planning — although that comes with its own limitations.
"But [certified teachers] have their own classes to take care of at the same time, so it would … still impact the educational value that the students are receiving," she said.
New solutions needed
Bartel says the Chilliwack school district is "bursting at the seams" with nearly 300 new students coming in every year.
"[The school district] found a way to create a Band-aid," she said.
"But we need to see some steps here from the government."
Bennett says people hoping to become teachers in the Lower Mainland are forced to pursue education elsewhere, due to a limited number of openings.
"The majority of our teachers come from the Lower Mainland and work in the Lower Mainland and they'd like to do their teacher education here."
She adds that the government needs to focus on recruitment and retention of teachers.
"We need to address the teacher shortage through creating more program spaces, looking at housing, and making it more affordable for teachers to live here."
In a written statement, Minister of Education Rachna Singh said several steps have been taken since 2017 to increase the number of eligible educators in the province.
"We know there is more work to be done and are committed to continue to support districts in recruiting and retaining certified teachers."