Substitute teachers want extra compensation to recognize COVID-19 risks

Job opportunities may be abundant for supply teachers in Manitoba, but substitutes say stringent COVID-19 safety protections are harder to come by.

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This article was published 07/02/2022 (412 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Job opportunities may be abundant for supply teachers in Manitoba, but substitutes say stringent COVID-19 safety protections are harder to come by.

“We should get danger pay,” said Anne Williams, a substitute teacher in west Winnipeg.

Temporary teachers earn far less than full-time educators, yet they often work across multiple buildings in which they are exposed to dozens if not hundreds of students during a shift, said the retired teacher, who has the protection of three vaccine doses.

Space is so limited the 70-year-old said none of the handful of high schools she has taught at recently have had even close to two metres of distance between desks because rooms are typically packed with 30 teenagers.

The majority of substitutes are not supplied with N95 masks at work nor given information about positive cases.

Despite her view “it does not feel overly safe” to be in a school, Williams said she feels a moral obligation to students to continue to teach, given all the disruptions they have experienced in recent years and the limited substitute pool.

School divisions anticipated higher-than-usual staff absenteeism rates upon the resumption of classes in 2022, owing to the highly infectious nature of the Omicron variant and significant community transmission.

Prior to the start of the school day Monday, there were 93 substitute requests in the Pembina Trails School Division. In Louis Riel, that figure was 75. There were more than a dozen openings in St. James-Assiniboia.

Leaders organized staff contingency plans during the recent remote learning period and have bolstered their long-term substitute rosters in preparation for such figures. The latter has allowed divisions to maintain near-normal fill rates for absence requests.

Substitute teachers

In anticipation of surging absenteeism rates due to the Omicron variant, school divisions across the city have hired dozens of additional long-term substitute teachers in recent weeks. Here are the breakdowns of new temporary teacher hires since Jan. 1:

• Winnipeg: 77, in addition to a full-time teacher population of roughly 4,000

• Pembina Trails: 47, in addition to a full-time teacher population of around 1,100

• Seven Oaks: 45, in addition to a full-time teacher population in the neighbourhood of 900

• St. James-Assiniboia: 21, in addition to a full-time teacher population of approximately 700

Louis Riel did not provide an exact figure, but a spokesperson indicated Monday: “We have continued to hire teacher substitutes and have also pre-booked existing substitutes before absences were recorded in an effort to combat higher-than-usual absenteeism.”

River East Transcona did not provide data in time for publication.

One substitute teacher in Winnipeg, however, said she recently disabled her automated job opening calls because she was getting bombarded, sometimes with 15 to 20 offers in a day.

“It’s a sub’s world right now… We have that sense of control over our schedule, but it’s tough for the school staff and the administration and certainly for the kids, who never know who’s going to be at the front of the classroom,” said the substitute, who spoke to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity.

The temporary teacher said she is becoming increasingly convinced employers should acknowledge the risks inherent to being a temporary worker in a school during the fourth wave with supplemental pay.

“We’re being plugged in to cover a frankly, exploding number of staff absences, and a typical day of eight periods might easily involve covering seven to eight classes,” added the elementary school educator.

Substitutes only start to receive standard teacher pay after they fill-in for a five-day period, an uncommon occurrence. They often do not have any paid sick days, unless they are hired as a term teacher.

More than 50 retired educators who continue to pick up temporary teaching shifts registered for a virtual town hall on working conditions late last month.

Concerns about pay equity, employers posting misleading or outright false information about openings out of desperation, and teachers leaving limited instructions for their emergency replacements were among the key issues raised, according to Bill Cann, president of the Retired Teachers’ Association of Manitoba.

Despite the above frustrations and pandemic risks, Cann said retired educators are motivated to continue covering shifts right now — “and it’s going to sound really corny”— because of their dedication.

“Just like nurses that were retired came back to work… (Teachers) came back because they were needed. In many cases, especially in rural Manitoba, the relationship between the retired substitute teacher and a particular school or particular principal is a bond,” Cann said.

Debbie Dann, an early years teacher in Winnipeg, is among those who fills-in where needed at the school she worked at before retiring in June 2021.

The 59-year-old indicated she knew she was nearing the end of her full-time career before the pandemic hit, but COVID-19 restrictions on play-based learning and challenges with spacing young students sped up that timeline.

“You’re telling them every few minutes: ‘No, no, no — stay at your table, at your desk, put your mask over your nose,’” Dann said, adding seatwork is now the norm in classes that were home to constant sharing and group activity before March 2020.

Dann said it’s evident both school staff and students are struggling with stress and anxiety, even though everyone is doing the best they can. She often brings in mindful colouring exercises, individual bags of playdough, and individually-wrapped treats to keep spirits high at work.

“I really want to see the kids. I wish it was different. I am scared of going in,” added the educator, who has received all three vaccine doses and only removes her mask when she is alone in a classroom.

“I’ve got those KN95 masks. When I don’t have enough of them, I double-up on the other (medical) masks and I’m constantly sanitizing and hoping that I’ll be OK.”

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.


Updated on Monday, February 7, 2022 9:38 PM CST: Updates details on substitute sick days.

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