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Staff absences remain high — and costly — in New West schools

Teacher and EA absence rates are still as high as they were at the height of the original Omicron wave.
Teacher absence rates remain high in New Westminster schools, and that's hitting the district's bottom line.

The New Westminster school district is running a bigger deficit than expected — and staff absences are the primary reason.

The district’s amended budget for 2022/23 had anticipated a $564,000 operating deficit. In fact, as of the end of March, the district is looking at a deficit of more than $828,000, according to numbers presented at the school board’s operation committee meeting Tuesday night (April 11).

Secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham said the change stems from higher-than-anticipated staff absences.

The district has seen high rates of staff absence over the winter, leading to increased costs in finding teachers-on-call and casual education assistants (EAs).

“Those absences have been sustained at that heightened state,” Ketcham said, noting high levels of absence have been seen through to the end of March. “Now that we’re through the respiratory season, we’re hoping that that comes down a little bit, but for now, based on the trends that we have observed up until the end of March, we’re going to be conservative in our estimates and just assume a heightened state of absence.”

A report from the district’s executive director of human resources, Robert Weston, showed classroom teacher absence rates at seven per cent in February and March. EA absences, meanwhile, were at 11.5 per cent in February and 10 per cent in March.

Those absence rates are higher than December (six per cent for teachers; 9.1 per cent for EAs) and January (six per cent for teachers, 10 per cent for EAs).

Overall, the year-to-date absence rate for the 2022/23 school year has been 5.8 per cent for classroom teachers and 9.9 per cent for EAs.

That’s essentially the same level as 2021/22 — which saw the much-publicized original Omicron wave that sent COVID-19 numbers soaring across B.C. The September-to-March period of that school year saw a 5.7 per cent absence rate for teachers and a 9.9 per cent rate for EAs.

Ketcham said the district will continue to collect staff absence data through April and May, and if it sees a return to lower absence rates, that deficit may still come down.

But she said the issue will be important to keep in mind as the district sets out its budget for 2023/24.

School District 40 has been working hard to cover as many staff absence days as possible. It set up a system of priority teachers-on-call and EAs to cover absences so it doesn’t have to redirect school administrators or non-classroom teachers (such as resource teachers and teacher-librarians) into covering classroom duties when other teachers are away.

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