Edmonton-area schools facing worst staffing crunches of COVID-19 pandemic

·2 min read
As teachers fall ill to the Omicron variant, substitute teachers are getting harder to find.  (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
As teachers fall ill to the Omicron variant, substitute teachers are getting harder to find. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

The Omicron variant has left Edmonton-area classrooms dealing with the most challenging staffing issues in the pandemic.

"It's crazy," said Paula Power, spokesperson for St. Albert Public Schools. "We've never seen anything like this before."

Staffing levels are the worst she's seen in her 20 years with the district, Power said.

About 10 per cent of staff are absent, compared to about one per cent normally away, she said.

The number of absences are growing.

On Jan 10, 59 staff were absent, 35 of those teachers. On Jan. 14, there were 87 absences, 51 of them teachers.

Schools have had to move around staff including principals, assistant principals and even consultants to lead classes, Power said.

"Whatever we can do to cover those classes, we're doing it," she said.

The numbers are similar in Edmonton with the latest figures showing 619, or 10.9 per cent, teachers and 20 per cent of educational assistants absent in public schools.

Of those, 97 teachers' spots were unfilled.

On Tuesday last week, there were 644 staff absent, 335 of them teachers, at Edmonton Catholic schools. Of those teaching positions, 69 were unfilled.

Elk Island Public Schools has seen a slight increase in staff illnesses, but are coping, said spokesperson Laura McNabb.

"We understand many other school divisions are facing significant challenges in staffing but, for now, we are holding our own," McNabb said in email.

Black Gold School Division, which includes Leduc, went from 50 absences on Jan. 10 to 95 on Friday. Support staff absences have also jumped from 26 on Jan. 10 to 55 on Friday.

"Most schools are without at least one teacher substitute each day," Devendra Kumar, division spokesperson, said in an email.

For Black Gold, the shortages are comparable to previous waves, but worse than a regular flu season, Kumar said.

Lack of substitute teachers

Finding substitute teachers has been a challenge for schools.

"I've talked to teachers even outside of Calgary, in Edmonton, in smaller rural areas where they're running out of substitute teachers," said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association.

While some substitutes are getting sick, others are not comfortable coming in.

Those available to work are often signed up with several districts.

The association has been working to get substitute teachers on contract income and benefit security, Schilling said.

"If they were to happen to become sick themselves, they would be able to access those benefits that other teachers have because right now they can't," he said.