Teacher sick days are up in Winnipeg, with one school division reporting absences spiking 81 per cent over last year’s figures. Meanwhile, school administrators in several parts of the city have been taking less time off amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through a series of freedom of information requests, the Free Press obtained the total number of sick days or hours recorded, from autumn during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, in the Winnipeg, Seven Oaks, Louis Riel and St. James Assiniboia school divisions.
The data include total illness-related absences, broken down by teachers, educational assistants and school administrators, between the start of September until the last day of December before the winter break.
Seven Oaks recorded the highest increases in both teacher and educational assistant absences this year, up 81 per cent and 95 per cent, respectively.
On the other side of the spectrum, St. James Assiniboia had a 24 per cent increase in teacher sick days, while support staff in Louis Riel took 15 per cent more sick time off this school year than last.
Superintendent Brian O’Leary said Seven Oaks added five extra days to each of its employee sick leave banks for 2020-21 before the school year got underway.
"We wanted that really as a message to staff that we really did want people to stay home if they were symptomatic and to not hesitate," O’Leary said, adding the spike in absences could also be attributed to the area having recorded a significant number of COVID-19 cases compared to elsewhere in the city.
Aside from typical sick days, school staff have taken time off this year to get tested for COVID-19, stay home with symptoms, and self-isolate when deemed a close contact of a positive case.
While all divisions reported increases in teacher and educational assistant time off, only Louis Riel has seen an increase in administrator absences.
In St. James Assiniboia, Winnipeg and Seven Oaks, school leaders' sick days have dropped — by 51 per cent, 19 per cent, and seven per cent, respectively.
Cameron Hauseman, an assistant professor of education at the University of Manitoba who researches the emotional aspect of school leadership, said the figures are unsurprising, given existing research on how school leaders cope during crises.
"Principals, typically in times of crisis, will try to shield their staff from concerns and take on more work and potentially, put themselves at ill-being. A lot of that comes back to traditional notions of leadership," Hauseman said. "It’s not exactly the most healthy strategy."
Crises such as school shootings and suicides have huge emotional tolls on principals, who put in extra hours to manage situations, he said, noting the pandemic has resulted in time-consuming duties including contact tracing and designing public health protocols in schools, on top of existing administrative duties.
"The rate of change has been the biggest problem for principals — not knowing from week to week what’s going to happen," said Rob Fisher, chairman of the Council of School Leaders.
Principal Ben Carr has experienced the hefty workload firsthand, but said he and other administrators are pushing through the stress and fatigue to make sure every school is safe and teacher absences are covered.
"Being away from your school for a day (during a pandemic) is really difficult," said Carr, who works at Maples Met School.
To date, he has yet to take a full sick day for either physical or mental health reasons; in part, he said, because he’s been lucky not to have experienced any COVID-19 symptoms.
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Carr added the absence trends likely reflect administrators typically spend less prolonged contact with students than other staff.
Meantime, Hauseman said he worries what the pandemic's impact will be on principals’ mental health in the coming months.
People for Education, a public education advocacy organization in Ontario, surveyed 1,173 principals in that province in early 2021 to assess their well-being and recommendations to improve stress during the pandemic.
The findings show about half of the in-person and hybrid learning principal respondents felt their stress levels were not manageable, while 57 per cent of those at virtual schools said the same.
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.