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Return to the classroom: Parents warned of possible COVID-related staff shortages

Local teachers’ union rep says provincial plan ‘lacking’: ‘It didn't give me a really good feeling like this is gonna work out too well,’ says the ETFO’s Liana Holm 

With school staff shortages expected, one local school board is warning parents of elementary students they will have to check their email every morning to see if their child’s teacher is absent that day before sending them off to school.

If their child’s class is cancelled, they will not be able to attend school that day.

This piece of information is included in a document put out by the Rainbow District School Board that guides the return to in-person learning Monday, Jan. 17 after two weeks of virtual learning following the holidays.

Like other sectors in the community, schools may experience staff shortages due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school board said, adding that it will do its best to find supply teachers, but there’s a limited pool.

Mostly at issue are current isolation rules and changes in testing rules developed in response to the Omicron variant surge. 

“I think it's respectful to our parents to be upfront with the fact that there could be a shortage that could create absences that cannot be filled,” said Bruce Bourget, director of education with the Rainbow DIstrict School Board.

The province has also acknowledged staff absences are expected. To boost staffing, retired teachers are allowed to work more days, with the limit temporarily increasing to 95 days instead of 50, and new Ontario teacher candidates can temporarily help stabilize school staffing.

Another change is that given changes to the provincial testing approach, the health unit will no longer be advising school boards of confirmed cases of COVID-19 or asking school boards to dismiss cohorts or declare outbreaks.

The provincial website tracking COVID cases in schools is no longer being used. 

Instead, schools will be reporting all absences to local health units. When a school meets a threshold of 30-per-cent absenteeism, a joint letter will be sent to the school community with guidance. If a student is absent, it doesn't necessarily mean it's due to COVID.

Sudbury.com asked Bourget if the Rainbow board will be posting letters about schools with the 30-per-cent absenteeism threshold on its website, he said guidance on that has not yet been communicated by the province.

During a Jan. 12 press conference, the province announced several new safety measures to be implemented as students return to in-person learning Jan. 17.

The new measures include two rapid antigen COVID tests to be provided to each student and staff member starting next week (Bourget said the Rainbow board has received its rapid test shipment) and the planning of school-based COVID vaccination clinics for students aged 5-12 (those are in the planning stages locally).

Previously announced safety measures included the updating of the daily COVID screening tool, N95 masks for school and child-care staff, three-ply cloth masks for students and 3,000 more standalone HEPA filter units for schools (the Rainbow board’s 30 extra HEPA filters still have not yet arrived, but have been shipped).

“I know this has been tough, but we will get through this,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce at the Jan. 12 press conference.

“We are committed to providing our students with a learning experience that minimizes potential disruption that protects them and their friends and their families and their educators.”

Bourget thanked families and staff for their patience as they navigate the ever-changing education system.

“In times like this that are so challenging to our community, I think it's important that we start to express our gratitude and our appreciation for people treating each other with kindness and patience,” he said.

Liana Holm, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Rainbow local, said the biggest problem she foresees with the return-to-school next week is the staff absenteeism issue.

There is already a shortage of occasional teachers in the system, she said. 

“As soon as people have to start isolating because they have one or more of those symptoms, in the winter when colds and flus are going around, not just Omicron and COVID, you know that's going to present a problem,” Holm said.

As for the province’s announcement that it will no longer notify the public of positive COVID cases in schools, instead only sending out a notice if there’s a 30-per-cent absentee rate, Holm said that as a parent herself, “that doesn’t give me a good feeling.”

She said she wishes there had been a more cautious approach to reopening schools. 

As much as nobody wants to continue with virtual learning, “maybe, just to blunt the curve, we might need a little bit more time,” she said, adding that switching between virtual and in-person learning is harmful to students and educators.

She added that the province’s January back-to-school plan seems “lacking.”

“It didn't give me a really good feeling like this is gonna work out too well, let’s just say that,” said Holm.

She said she appreciates measures such as providing N95 masks to education workers and additional HEPA filters to schools. Holm said it’s also positive that booster shots are being prioritized for education workers, but so far, that’s only in the GTA.

Many parents who contacted Sudbury.com about the return to the classrooms next week were glad to be ditching virtual learning, but at the same time, there was concern about the realities of Omicron-era education.

Laurie Kulik, whose seven-year-old son, Kalvin, is a Grade 2 student at Larchwood Public School, said she “kind of has to” send her child back to in-person learning next week.

That’s partly due to her employment situation. She’s had to move to part-time and work from home during the latest round of virtual learning to care for her son.

At the same time, she said she is concerned about her son potentially getting sick, and also that the schools may be shut down again due to the COVID-19 situation.

She said she feels the move back to in-person learning is too soon, given the high number of COVID cases in the community. 

Regarding the staff shortage issue, even before in-person learning has started up again, Kulik learned that before and after-school care at Kalvin’s school is suspended due to worker absenteeism.

If his teacher gets sick, Kulik said she is going to have to take time off again (due to the aforementioned Rainbow board rule about elementary kids not attending school if their teacher is absent).

Kulik said the idea of possibly flipping back and forth between virtual and in-person learning this winter is disruptive not only to kids, but to parents and their employers.

“To have something like just constant is much easier than going back and forth,” Kulik said.