As more teachers call-in sick or require coverage during COVID-19 self-isolation stints, Winnipeg school divisions are dealing with a “revolving door” of absences one substitute says is worsening staff burnout and class management issues.

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As more teachers call-in sick or require coverage during COVID-19 self-isolation stints, Winnipeg school divisions are dealing with a "revolving door" of absences one substitute says is worsening staff burnout and class management issues.

"Substitute teachers are the canary in the coal mine. We’re able to detect the warning signs," said the Winnipeg educator, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution at work.

"I think we’re reaching a breaking point, very quickly."

The need for substitutes is in and of itself a warning sign, she said, adding so is the prevalence of unfilled requests.

If a request goes unfilled, school staff have to reorganize schedules or use prep periods to cover for colleagues, which means there’s minimal downtime for staff and more overlap between classrooms.

“Substitute teachers are the canary in the coal mine. We’re able to detect the warning signs.” – Winnipeg educator

Fill rates are usually at 95 per cent or above during a typical school year, and for much of the pandemic, divisions have maintained high numbers.

On Friday, however, only 64 per cent of teacher substitute requests were filled in River-East Transcona. That figure was 67 per cent in Louis Riel.

St. James-Assiniboia is currently averaging between 70 to 75 per cent — a significant drop from the high 90s in March.

"We’ve seen an increase in the number of absences in the past two weeks, as staff who are deemed a close contact are no longer exempt from self-isolation (since April 13) and that increases the need for either substitutes or flipping to remote learning," Radean Carter, spokeswoman for the Winnipeg School Division, said in an email.

Six classrooms in the division transitioned to temporary at-home learning over the weekend. Late Monday, the division also announced Inkster School would go fully remote for a day while a public health investigation continues.

In other divisions, leaders have, in consultation with public health, made decisions to transition entire schools to a remote model for at least two weeks as they face rising cases and staff crunches.

“It’s really bad practice to have teachers who move from school to school... If you’re going to do that, you need to test them.” – Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist

Carter said the current substitute roster of 1,335 teachers in the province’s largest division is being "fully" utilized at present — mostly for COVID-19-related absences.

She did not provide information about fill-rates, saying a freedom of information request is necessary to provide such detail.

Pembina Trails did not provide Friday figures, citing a need for more time to gather information, while Seven Oaks recorded fulfillment of 87 per cent.

In the division the substitute teacher works in, daily job postings have increased three-fold over the last month.

There is no shortage of work and despite the risk of moving around to different classrooms frequently, depending on available vacancies, she said she’s comfortable with the physical risks at work — as she either double- or triple-masks and applies sanitizer often — but worries about the mental health situation in schools.

While substitutes have to wear appropriate personal protective equipment, the province has not issued policies that limit assignments.

“There's this school exceptionalism that seems to be occurring. At what point do people start waking up to see that children are also susceptible, vulnerable and can contribute to the transmission?” – Dr. Anna Banerji

"It’s really bad practice to have teachers who move from school to school... If you’re going to do that, you need to test them," said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist based in Toronto.

Furness said he’s also concerned Manitoba continues to allow students to take off masks if they are adequately distanced, despite research indicating the virus spreads via aerosols.

The province’s top doctor did not offer up any changes to school protocols Monday, reiterating instead in-school transmission is limited and keeping classrooms open is critical for students.

Closures would not have a large impact on overall transmission because it is happening outside of classrooms, said Dr. Brent Roussin.

Furness said Manitoba is using absence of evidence to claim evidence of absence when it has not done any asymptomatic testing in schools to find out how prevalent the novel coronavirus is.

"There's this school exceptionalism that seems to be occurring. At what point do people start waking up to see that children are also susceptible, vulnerable and can contribute to the transmission?" said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto’s medicine faculty and Dalla Lana School of Public Health, noting the severity of variant cases and a growing number of children becoming severely ill.

"Most people understand the importance of having kids at school, but not when it’s really dangerous for the kids and the families and it’s contributing to community spread."

— with files from Katie May

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

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.

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