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New Westminster schools scrambling to fill teacher, EA absences

School District 40 superintendent says shortage of replacement staff is impacting students and causing a drain on staff
Teacher and student in COVID classroom
Who fills in for sick teachers during a viral pandemic? The New Westminster school district is facing a shortage of replacement teachers and education assistants to cover staff absences.

New Westminster schools are in urgent need of more substitute teachers and education assistants to cover staff absences – but finding those replacements is proving to be a challenge.

School trustees heard a report on the replacement staffing issue at their Nov. 9 operations committee meeting.

Robert Weston, the district’s executive director of human resources, presented figures showing how many days off had been recorded by teachers and EAs in the first two months of the school year and how many of those days had been covered by replacement staff.

The district recorded 150 teacher absence days in September, reflecting an absenteeism rate of about 3% (that is, about 3% of all district teachers absent at any one time). In October, that went up to 306 absence days, or about 4.5% absenteeism.

Weston noted the district was able to cover 88% of absences in September and 89% in October with teachers from its on-call roster.

Among education assistants, the district saw 165 absence days in September, or about a 6% absenteeism rate. In October, that went up to 292 days, or 9%. It was only able to fill about 66% of absences in September and 69% in October using its casual EA staff.

Weston pointed out those non-filled days pose challenges for schools because absences must then be covered by principals, vice-principals or non-classroom teachers (such as teacher-librarians).

“They have to be backfilled as best possible from non-enrolling and administrative staff, and this of course places great strain on the school itself,” he said.

Superintendent Karim Hachlaf said the problem is “very concerning.”

“That directly impacts the learning environment for our students. I’m very concerned about the impact this is having on the learning environment, and I need to project a clear picture to the board in regard to the work our school-based administrators are doing to offer coverages. Beyond EAs and teachers, a school has noon-hour supervisors, crossing guards, and it has been intensive for administrators,” he said.

“That is a narrative that is taking place in many school districts, not only ours.”

New Westminster facing competition for staff

Weston said the district’s absenteeism rates have remained relatively consistent year over year. He said New Westminster’s rates are in line with those in other school districts, and across the social services and education sector generally.

But he told trustees the district faces a particular challenge right now because there’s stiff competition for teachers and education assistants in Metro Vancouver school districts.

He pointed out that larger neighbouring school districts often put requirements on their on-call and casual staff that they be available for a minimum number of days a week – leaving small districts such as New Westminster essentially scrambling for the leftovers.

New Westminster had experimented in what Weston termed a “minor way” with the idea of having a small number of teachers-on-call hired as permanent staff, to be deployed wherever they are needed on any given day.

Hachlaf said the district’s strategy with priority teachers-on-call and priority EAs has been successful but is not sufficient to address the number of absences local schools are now facing.

“We do need to take intensive intervention here. I see the need, the absolute need, to increase our priority TTOCs (teachers-on-call) and priority EAs to ensure we have the coverage,” he said. “When we have folks of all different employee groups backfilling and supporting one another, it causes a drain, and it actually intensifies and will lead to greater absenteeism.”

Budget, staffing analysis coming Nov. 23

Trustee Maya Russell proposed the board allocate $500,000 for replacement staffing.

“I think the case has been made very clearly. I don’t think we can continue on in the school year with the number of absences we’re having. This is going to really, really impact students with special needs (and) staff,” she said. “It’s just going to snowball and make it tougher.”

But other trustees suggested it would be premature to simply allocate money without having a fuller picture of how the problem would be addressed.

“I really am floored by the numbers that we’re seeing and how they are the norm for the region,” trustee Anita Ansari said. “To me, that reads like we do have to explore different hiring practices. I don’t necessarily want to budget a certain amount of money without actually knowing the scope of the practice change we have to do.”

Hachlaf told trustees he appreciated the desire to allocate money to the issue. He said district staff can return to the board at their next meeting with further data and a staffing analysis.

Trustees agreed to table Russell’s motion until their Nov. 23 meeting.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca.