A shortage of teachers and supply teachers in anglophone schools because of illness and other absences has reached "a crisis point," according to the president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association.
Some schools have as many as 22 unfilled teacher positions on a daily basis, said Connie Keating.
"That is a significant number," she said, pointing to COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, as major contributors.
Other school staff, such as principals, guidance counsellors and resource teachers have had to step in, with two or three classrooms sometimes being combined in cafeterias or gyms.
The situation is "unsustainable" and it's "not right," said Keating.
Student education is suffering because some of the people filling in are merely supervising, not teaching; support services are compromised because the specialty staff are busy filling in; and teachers are burning themselves out.
"I'm … very concerned and frustrated with the lack of action to address the current crisis," she said.
The association is calling on the government to create a provincial task force to identify immediate actions to ensure schools are staffed properly.
The government really needs to lean in hard and fast for the sake of our students. - Connie Keating, New Brunswick Teachers' Association president
On Thursday, francophone south school district advised parents it may have to cancel some classes.
It's dealing with a higher than usual absence rate and a shortage of substitute teachers, according to a notice.
The district said it will only cancel classes as a "last resort," but urged parents to check their email twice every day in case their child's class is cancelled for the day.
Keating commended the district for "showing leadership" and being up front with parents about its challenges.
"We would hope that our anglophone school districts would show similar leadership and have a clearly articulated plan and process that would allow principals to close classes if there's no teachers found to work that day," she said.
Teachers have been trying very hard to "keep things rolling as if things are normal," going to work when they are sick and putting in personal time, according to Keating.
But she described the situation as a "perfect storm."
Even before the pandemic, before March 2020, government-commissioned reports found the province's inclusive school system needed more resources, she noted.
Then COVID-19 brought "years of interrupted learning."
The return to school saw "gaps in learning."
Now, on top of COVID, schools are faced with other societal challenges, including increases in poverty, homelessness and mental health problems. There are also more newcomers, many of whom have experienced trauma in war-torn regions and require extra supports.
Keating acknowledged the government is looking into longer term recruitment initiatives, but she said solutions are needed sooner.
She is worried not only about recruiting but also about retaining, especially the young teachers.
"We know that many are re-evaluating their future based on the worry and the toll on their mental health."
Keating suggests the government take a closer look at why there's a shortage of supply teachers. She believes it's because of the workload and demands.
"The government really needs to lean in hard and fast for the sake of our students."