New Westminster school trustees have agreed to allocate up to half a million dollars to address a shortage of substitute teachers and education assistants.
At their Nov. 9 operations committee meeting, trustees heard a report on the challenges of finding teachers-on-call and casual EAs to replace absences around the school district. At trustees’ request, district staff returned to the Nov. 23 board meeting with more details and a suggested strategy for tackling the ongoing problem.
“Because of our daily staff absences, we consistently need to reassign specialty teachers, principals, vice-principals to cover our classroom needs, and also make adjustments to our assignments for EAs to address the shortages that we face on a daily basis,” said Robert Weston, the district’s executive director of human resources. “This is clearly unacceptable in the long term and must be addressed.”
A report from Weston and secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham noted that teacher absences in the district in October averaged 36 per day and reached as high as 47 in a single day. It said the district needs an average of 35 teachers-on-call and 25 casual EAs on any given day.
Finding those people, however, hasn’t been possible.
What has the district tried so far?
The school district has created a pool of priority teachers-on-call and casual EAs, but those efforts haven’t come close to meeting its needs. The district currently has six priority teachers-on-call, but all six are currently filling in for temporary vacancies and aren’t available for daily call-out. It only has one priority EA, since others have been posted into vacancies in the district.
So it’s been a daily scramble to fill teacher and EA absences, with the district competing for the services of a limited pool of staff available around Metro Vancouver – often losing out to larger districts who require on-call staff to be available for a certain minimum number of days each week.
On average, the report notes the district manages to fill 28 of the 35 teacher absences daily, and 18 of 25 EA absences.
Closing that gap, Weston said, will require a long-term, multi-pronged strategy that includes “reinvigorating” its recruitment processes to reach people outside of Metro Vancouver and to target university graduates for replacement teaching positions.
Over the long term, the district wants to create a permanent replacement team consisting of 20 teachers-on-call and 15 education assistants.
The district wants to start building that team by prioritizing money for it, starting in the 2022/23 budget cycle and building slowly over the years – both to accommodate budget priorities and to give itself the time to recruit a “quality workforce,” the report notes.
Weston and Ketcham recommended to the board that the district should start by confirming five priority teachers-on-call and five priority EA positions, to be funded out of one-time surplus funds for the time being.
Ketcham told trustees that will cost an estimated $278,900.
But she recommended the board continue with a motion from trustee Maya Russell to set aside “up to $500,000” for the task. Keeping that wording will give staff some flexibility with costs, Ketcham said.
Moving beyond a ‘stopgap’ measure
Trustees agreed to the plan but noted much more work lies ahead to address the underlying causes of high absenteeism.
Trustee Mark Gifford described the current initiative as a “stopgap measure.”
Gifford pointed out that working through the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a different set of stressors and said hopefully the current situation won’t become the new normal.
But he said the district needs to find ways to support “wellness and connection” for its staff over the long term and make sure that any who are struggling have the support they need to continue in their work.
Trustee Dee Beattie noted EAs face particular challenges because their jobs are part-time and many seek second jobs to make a living wage – not just in New Westminster, but provincewide. She said the district needs to push for 35-hour work weeks for education assistants.
“There’s just too much burnout happening, there’s just too much sickness happening,” she said. “It’s because of the lack of hours, the lack of long-term viability in this job.”
Weston agreed with trustees that the issue is “very challenging” but said the district will continue to address it, one step at a time.
“We very definitely have to keep digging deeper,” he said.
“The focus upon our employees and keeping them healthy and … ensuring they have that level of engagement is very important.”