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New Westminster school district bracing for staff shortages

With the Omicron wave causing a surge in COVID-19 cases around B.C., School District 40 has plans in place to cope with teacher absences
Teacher and student in COVID classroom
The New Westminster school district is boosting its teacher-on-call and casual EA ranks to help cope with COVID-related absences.

The New Westminster school district is bracing for staff shortages in the face of Omicron – with nearly twice as many teacher absences as usual in the first week of school.

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf said the district is closely monitoring staff absences as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students in New Westminster and around B.C. returned to class Jan. 10 in the face of rising case counts and high rates of community transmission.

Hachlaf, speaking to parents at a Q&A hosted by the New Westminster DPAC (district parent advisory council) Thursday evening, said the school district’s plans have included preparing for staff absences. He noted that, in the first four days of the new year, New West saw nearly double the absenteeism it has historically seen for both teachers and educational assistants (EAs).

Part of that, he said, has come from a “really big spike” in numbers of staff taking partial days off for booster-dose vaccine appointments. (Workers are entitled to three hours off for vaccination.)

The district had already arranged to book its complete pool of teachers-on-call and casual EAs for the first two weeks of the school year. It’s also getting ready to bring some additional teachers-on-call and casual EAs into schools starting next week.

When substitute teachers or EAs can’t be found, school administrators and non-enrolling teachers (such as teacher-librarians or resource teachers) are redeployed to cover absences.

“We really need to look at making sure we have staffing levels that we can sustain,” Hachlaf said. “Beyond that number, I can tell you that our principals, vice-principals, non-enrolling staff were all working extremely hard this week. It has been a long week, to be frank.”

Hachlaf said he monitors staff absenteeism every day by site to ensure that all the district’s schools can continue to operate safely. If there aren’t enough staff at a given school, the district will enact what’s being termed a “functional closure,” where students would learn from home for a limited period.

Hachlaf said the threshold for declaring a functional closure is about 25% staff absenteeism, but that will vary from school to school.

Asked whether the district is receiving any additional money to cover the costs of substitute staff, Hachlaf said there has not been any new federal or provincial funding at this point. Right now, he said, the cost for teachers-on-call and casual EAs comes out of the district’s operational budget.

In November, the New Westminster school board voted to allocate up to $500,000 towards additional teachers-on-call and casual EA staffing, and that money will be used as required.

“We were thinking ahead,” Hachlaf said.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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