Surrey teachers call for more staff, specialists to deal with 'impossible workload'

A student is pictured at an elementary school in Surrey, B.C. Teachers in the district are asking for more specialist teachers to help deal with
A student is pictured at an elementary school in Surrey, B.C. Teachers in the district are asking for more specialist teachers to help deal with

Teachers in Surrey, B.C., are calling on the local school district, federal politicians and school trustees to help recruit more specialist teachers to improve classroom working conditions and provide student services.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) reached a tentative contract agreement on Monday that offers significant salary gains and other important benefits.

However, the president of the Surrey Teachers' Association says the new agreement does not do enough to address the "impossible workload" teachers are currently experiencing, especially when it comes to providing services for students with behavioural challenges.

"When specialist teachers are absent, and when programs and services cannot be maintained, then there are more opportunities for students to become dysregulated," Jatinder Bir said in a written statement on Monday.

The Surrey School District has more than 78,000 students and 13,000 staff and is the largest and fastest-growing district in B.C.

Bir said teachers have been making distress calls to the union about overcrowded classrooms and loss of service because there is not enough staff or specialists like school counsellors, psychologists and speech pathologists. Some teachers have taken early retirement, while others have gone on medical leave.

"New and veteran teachers are looking for ways to leave the profession."

Specialists not replaced immediately

Lizanne Foster, the first vice president of the Surrey Teachers' Association, says specialist teachers are not replaced from the first day they are absent, and some staff are not replaced until the new school year.

"All these specialists that help students ... when they are absent, they are not replaced. When they go and leave, they are not replaced. Sometimes the school psychologist is not replaced for an entire year," Foster told CBC's The Early Edition on Tuesday.

Last month the district asked the province to build more schools after welcoming 1,300 more students than it had projected last spring.

"A lot of those students are refugee children ... and they might not have gone to kindergarten, they might not have gone to first year. After the pandemic, lots of kids had learning loss ... and specialist teachers can fix that," she said.

Foster says students continue to fall behind in numeracy and literacy because of prolonged absence or redirection of specialists in schools.

"Currently, in the best-case scenario, some specialists are replaced after three days of absence, some are not replaced for the entirety of the school year," Bir said.

He said other school staff are often tasked with covering classroom teacher absences, which means students could lose out on things like music class and time in the library.

"I have on multiple occasions seen students cry upon being told that they were missing music for that day ... and we've had times where students miss weeks of music in a row due to failures to fill," said a Surrey school music teacher.