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New West teachers taking fewer sick days during COVID

Absenteeism rates are lower for September and October than they were at the same time last year
teaching, COVID-19, stock photo
New Westminster school trustees had worried COVID-19 might lead to more sick days for staff - but, in fact, the opposite is true so far.

When schools are open in the midst of a viral pandemic, what happens to the number of teacher sick days?

The New Westminster school board heard good news on that front at their Nov. 17 operations committee meeting.

“Our teacher absenteeism rate is down from what it was last year,” Robert Weston, the district’s director of human resources, told trustees. “There are fewer teachers absent this year in September and October than we had last year.”

Weston presented a report to the board showing that the district was able to find teachers-on-call to fill just shy of 80% of its teacher absence days – up from 63% last year.

“That rate is encouraging,” he said. “I’m confident that it does have something to do with our ability to keep a healthy-sized (teacher-on-call) roster.”

But he noted finding teachers-on-call continues to be a challenge.

“We, like other districts, are struggling to ensure that each day we have the requisite number of replacements for our positions,” he admitted.

That struggle is more acute on the educational assistant front, where the district was only able to find casual EAs to fill in for 60 of 218 absence days in September, and 166 of 318 days in October.

Weston noted New West is competing with other nearby school districts – particularly Burnaby, Coquitlam and Surrey – in terms of calling in casual EAs, particularly since the larger districts are able to offer more consistent employment.

Some districts require casual employees to be available a certain number of days per week, but Weston said that would likely backfire in New West because the district would likely lose those employees altogether.

Weston told trustees that staff absences in New West are consistent with provincial averages. The Ministry of Education did a recent survey of absenteeism rates based on a random week in November, he noted. New West’s teacher absenteeism rate came out slightly below the provincial average, with EAs and custodians just slightly above but within the central range.

“There is a great commitment there to ensure they are attending at work and providing the services that are required,” he said.

Trustees lauded the efforts of district staff in a difficult year.

“The report is just another reminder of the efforts that our teachers and EAs are putting in in these first couple of months of the year in really trying to be there for kids and families,” trustee Mark Gifford said. “A big thanks to our facilities staff, whose cleaning and repairing and custodial support is playing a big role in giving students and staff the confidence to be in our schools’ classrooms.”

Trustee Maya Russell agreed.

“We had worried about increased absences in the back-to-school season,” she said. “This is so impressive, so dedicated.”