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BEYOND LOCAL: ‘Slap in the face’: Simcoe schools lean on unqualified teachers

While Simcoe County school boards say their supply lists are essentially full, the boards are seeing an increase in how often qualified education workers on those lists don’t answer the phone, leading to more unqualified individuals filling those vacancies
2021-02-16 Education

People with just a high school diploma are being used as substitutes in classrooms across Simcoe County when a teacher calls out sick, a trend also being seen across the province.

Teacher recruitment is an issue across Ontario, with education minister Stephen Lecce announcing late in February that the province is looking at “every option available” to help ease the shortage of teachers. The shortage is also impacting supply teacher levels, with more unqualified people being called upon to substitute teach.

Schools across Simcoe County are no exception to the provincial trend. While unqualified teachers must have, at minimum, a high school diploma, the result of using them can make teachers feel their education and credentials aren’t valued.

“It’s sort of a slap in the face for our profession. You don’t really see it in other professions,” said Kent MacDonald, president of the Simcoe Muskoka branch of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) representing elementary teachers.

“You’re just grabbing a warm body to fill the void and it takes away from what we do,” he said.

School boards across Ontario are leaning on the practice of hiring people who are not certified teachers or who have certification pending to cover emergency vacancies. Called "unqualified teachers," they must have a temporary certificate from the Ontario College of Teachers before they are put in a classroom.

In February, Ontario education worker unions such as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and OECTA put out a joint media release blaming the provincial government for the current shortage.

“It should come as no surprise to the Ford government that the growing teacher shortage in Ontario, which is actually a recruitment and retention crisis, is a mess of their own making,” notes the release.

According to a 2022 report from the Ontario College of Teachers, Ontario new teacher demand has outpaced annual teacher recruitment supply for several years. Current teacher retirement trends also point to a need for increased teacher supply.

“Reserves of qualified and unemployed teachers from earlier teacher surplus years are no longer available to staff Ontario’s schools,” concludes the report, noting that high school science, math and technology programs are the most impacted.

The report notes 1,500 more new teachers are needed annually by 2030 to keep up with turnover, however new teacher candidate admissions to Ontario’s faculties annually through 2022 stood about 1,400 below that requirement.

In Simcoe County, the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) said that while their supply list is essentially full, whether supply teachers on that list actually pick up the phone is the reason unqualified teachers are used in certain cases.

“For the most part, we are fully staffed in our permanent positions and on paper it appears like we have a sufficient number of employees in our occasional pool,” said Pauline Stevenson, communications manager for the SMCDSB. “Yet, when permanent staff are away, the vacancies are not always being filled by staff from this pool.”

Stevenson said the board can’t attribute the shortages to one particular reason.

“We do know that despite ongoing recruitment efforts and having a decent number of occasional staff assigned to all employee areas, jobs are remaining unfilled,” she said. “This means that we do not always have the coverage we want or need in our schools.”

At the SMCDSB, Stevenson said unqualified staff are still paid employees of the board and require vetting, which includes criminal background checks and a vulnerable sector screening.

“There is no doubt that these staff members played an invaluable role throughout COVID-19 and now as we continue to experience staffing challenges,” she said. “It is important for families to know that we only call upon unqualified staff when no one on the supply list is available to cover a vacancy.”

Stevenson said that at this point, the only alternative to using unqualified staff in schools would be closing classrooms when a teacher is off sick and no qualified staff are available.

“None of this is ideal, and it is not something we want to be doing. The situation facing school boards across the country is complex and there isn’t one simple solution,” she said.

MacDonald confirms the number of unqualified teachers picking up supply shifts has ramped up post-COVID.

“Even before COVID, we were really close to being in a crisis,” he said. “Interest rates, cost of living, finding housing – all of that has an impact on people choosing the profession.”

Aside from the use of unqualified individuals to supply, he said when a teacher is instead pulled off their other regular duties to fill in for a teacher who is off, there can be a domino effect that takes place in a school. MacDonald said he’s heard from his members that some are worried about calling in sick due to the issue.

“If they know somebody is going to be reassigned, it effects the relationships in the building,” he explained. “Say the teacher who does art, drama or phys-ed (is out), all the other teachers who were supposed to have 40 minutes of prep during that period, don’t get it.”

“We don’t want this to be the new normal,” said MacDonald.

Sarah Kekewich, communications manager with the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB), said their board has a full supply teacher list to draw from when a teacher calls out sick or goes on a leave.

“I’m not sure if this is consistent with how other boards are managing, but the storyline provincially is not a reflection of our situation at the SCDSB,” said Kekewich.

“There are times, primarily related to our board’s geography, where some regions may experience difficulty securing a supply teacher from the supply-teacher list,” she said. “In these cases, we work with the school’s teachers and administration to have the class covered.”

Kekewich said their board’s human resources department has worked over the past number of years to build their teacher supply lists.

“Unqualified teachers are only used when those from the supply list do not pick up the position,” said Kekewich.

Simcoe County OSSTF bargaining unit president Jen Hare said the union is seeing schools in more rural areas having difficulty filling supply teacher spots.

“We are seeing it more subject-specific. For example, if a technology teacher or French teacher is away for the day, we see supply teachers who are not necessarily qualified in that area,” said Hare. “It’s a struggle to make sure students are having the best programming.”

Hare said the union wants to make sure supply teachers who are unqualified are still given support.

“They have experience and knowledge, but what they don’t necessarily have is all the teacher education,” explained Hare. “We want to improve the situations in our schools so people want to go into a Faculty of Education program. So they don’t see it as a waste of time.”

At the end of the day, Hare said it comes down to money.

“I don’t think it’s as straightforward as saying if you gave every school $1 million you’d see teachers flood into the system, but I think if the community and government were supporting our schools, they would be better environments for education workers and students,” said Hare.

When asked about solutions, MacDonald said they aren’t as simple as people may think, with the issue extending beyond Ontario and Canada, and beyond the education sector.

“The cost of living is real. Even in our area, rentals are hard to come by and the cost is crazy. For someone to go to teacher’s college to get their degree, can they survive?” he said. “It’s tricky.”

“It is front-of-mind for the teachers I deal with. We’re feeling it here,” said MacDonald.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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