Substitute teachers from the Calgary Board of Education are in higher demand than usual this fall.
Since in-person classes resumed Sept. 8, CBE substitute teacher Sonia Tyhonchuk has worked every day.
"I have had multiple calls to work on those days, which means that teachers who know me were contacting me, wondering and asking if I was available to work for them and that's highly unusual at this time of year," Tyhonchuk said.
Tyhonchuk said that usually by mid-October — as cold and flu season takes off — subs expect to be called in more frequently. But this year, it's already been non-stop.
"I have been in for three different teachers for multiple days, which is unusual," she said. "They have all been related to the need for COVID testing, because either the teachers or someone in their families have had symptoms."
Demand for CBE subs up
The CBE said that in the first 15 days of the school year, it has experienced a 20 per cent increase in demand for substitute teachers compared to the same period in the 2019 school year.
At the same time, 30 per cent more substitute teachers have been added to the roster.
"We have nearly 1,800 substitute teachers available, which we believe will be sufficient," said CBE chief superintendent Christopher Usih in an email.
The board said one change it has made for substitutes this year is allowing them to choose to self-cohort.
"While there has previously been an expectation for substitute teachers to be available to work in four areas of the city and an average of three days a week in the past, CBE recognizes the need to limit the risk of spreading COVID-19," said Usih.
Tyhonchuk said she thinks this is a good move.
"For example, if a substitute decides that they're only going to go into a certain number of schools and only certain schools to reduce the number of contacts and to reduce the potential for being a vector, the Calgary board [is] supporting that this year," she said.
"And that's fantastic. But it also might mean then that a substitute teacher could work less than they worked in previous years."
'I've been teaching every day but one this year'
The CBE said because substitutes often find themselves in different schools throughout the course of the year or a semester, it has prepared a re-entry document for substitute teachers to assist them as they enter classrooms.
Tyhonchuk's husband, Bruce Kaufman — who previously ran for the provincial NDP — is a substitute teacher for Rocky View Schools and has been equally as busy as his wife.
"I have been teaching every day but one this year so far," he said. "I was in for three days for a teacher, the first three days of school in a high school in Airdrie and now I'm in the middle of two-and-a-half weeks for a teacher in middle school in Concord."
Kaufman said he and Tyhonchuk, who both retired from full-time teaching a few years back, have discussed if they can maintain this level of demand.
"We talk about it every night. How long are we going to do this year? Are we going to stick with it for as long as usual?" he said.
"We love being with the kids and helping our colleagues in the school communities. But we are worried about it. Both of us are in our late 50s. So we have to consider our health along with our relatives and people within our bubble at the same time."
Plans in place at Rocky View Schools
Rocky View Schools told CBC News it could not provide numbers in relation to substitute teacher demand, or how deep its roster is this year and whether or not it had grown since last year.
"I'm not sure of exact numbers," said director of communications Tara de Weerd in an email. "But we do expect and are prepared to call upon more substitutes this year compared to previous years."
De Weerd said the number of substitutes Rocky View Schools is able to assign to classrooms can fluctuate in a given day based on various factors.
"So that's a hard number to land on," she said. "We have plans in place to respond to a range of scenarios including teacher and substitute availability during the pandemic."
The Calgary Catholic School District said any increase in teacher absences this year was insignificant.
"We are at a total district fill rate of 98 per cent for teachers, which means almost all of our teacher absences are being filled," said Tania Van Brunt, director of communications for the board.
"We have seen a negligible increase in absences from last year at this point. Our sub roster is at approximately the same level as it was last year. That could change if we get more cases in the schools and teachers are asked to self-isolate."
No complaints of difficulty accessing subs
Alberta Education said it is aware there is an increased demand across the province for substitutes due to the "unique circumstances of this school year."
"Alberta Education has not heard from school authorities that there are issues pertaining to accessing substitute teachers," said press secretary Colin Aitchison.
"Alberta's government has distributed federal funds for COVID-19 to all school authorities and provided maximum flexibility for their use."
Aitchison said the COVID-19 support funds can be used for additional costs including staff, which includes substitutes, and adapting learning spaces.
Both Kaufman and Tyhonchuk said they have been confident in what is being done to maintain safety at the schools they have been substitutes at so far this year.
"That's been because of the teachers I've been replacing," said Tyhonchuk. "[One teacher] left me like three pages of notes on [proper] COVID protocol for the kids."
'Things are not normal'
But it's definitely a different atmosphere than in years past.
"I just see everybody working full out. I walk into a school and everyone has this hyper awareness of what needs to be done and teachers are working so hard," said Tyhonchuk.
"The office staff, the caretakers, the EAs, the administration, the lunchtime supervisors, everybody in the school is doing their very best to provide the best learning experience for kids. They're trying to create engaging activities, given the limitations that we have.
"But you're walking around a school where the kids are masked, where the staff are masked. Things are not normal."
Tyhonchuk said there is at least one thing that the provincial government can do to show teachers and students that they are paying attention to school conditions.
"Every MLA should go into at least three schools in their riding. Go into an elementary school and middle school and a high school," she said.
"Don't go in at your convenience, go in at a time when the administrators and the teachers tell you, 'This is when we have challenges. This is what it looks like.' Because I don't think the MLAs understand what it looks like."