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The COVID effect? New West school staff absence rates are still high

The pandemic may have faded from the headlines, but its impact is still being felt.
Teacher absence rates in New Westminster schools remain at high levels in 2022/23 — essentially unchanged from the height of Omicron.

Is the COVID-19 pandemic still making itself felt in New Westminster classrooms?

Teacher absences in School District 40 haven’t dropped since the height of the original Omicron wave, new data from the school district shows.

The number of teachers and education assistants who’ve been away in the 2022/23 school year remains relatively unchanged from the same point in 2021/22, when the school district was sounding the alarm about absence rates in the district — and its ability to fill those absences with teachers-on-call and casual EAs.

Month-over-month numbers aren’t improving, either. In fact, staff absence rates were higher in January 2023 than they were in December 2022.

Here, we take a look at how it all breaks down.

By the numbers: Teacher, EA absences remain high in SD40

As of January 2023, the school district had seen 2,179 absence days by teachers: 1,694.5 of those by regular classroom teachers and 484.5 by specialist teachers (such as resource teachers, English language learning teachers and teacher-librarians). That’s an absence rate of 5.5 per cent for classroom teachers and 4.5 per cent for specialist teachers.

At the same time in 2022, the district had seen 2,216 absence days by teachers: 1,681 by regular classroom teachers and 535 by specialist teachers, for an absence rate of 5.5 per cent for classroom teachers and five per cent for specialist teachers.

The number of EA absences, meanwhile, has gone up slightly. As of January 2023, the district had seen 1,571 absence days by EAs, compared to 1,488 at the same time last year. Those numbers equate to an absence rate of nine per cent this year, compared to 9.75 per cent the year before.

Month over month, the absence rate isn’t showing any signs of going down. In December 2022, the teacher absence rate was six per cent for classroom teachers and 3.5 per cent for specialist teachers; in January 2023, it was six per cent for classroom teachers and 5.65 per cent for specialist teachers.

For education assistants, the absence rate in December was 9.1 per cent; in January, it was 10 per cent.

The data does not include specific reasons for teacher or EA absences, since that information is protected by privacy legislation. But, beyond COVID-19, this school year has also seen high levels of influenza and RSV — the much-discussed “tripledemic” that saw the province kick its hospital emergency operations centres into gear to deal with overwhelming demand for emergency rooms and hospital beds.

School district creates priority teachers-on-call, EA positions

So what does all that mean in classrooms?

For the New West school district, it means trying to stay on top of the need to fill those empty positions — either by shuffling administrators or non-classroom teachers into classrooms or, preferably, by hiring teachers-on-call or casual EAs.

It’s not a new problem; the district was discussing the need for extra teachers-on-call and casual EAs as early as November 2021, when superintendent Karim Hachlaf said staff absences were “very concerning” because of the impact on students.

In response, the district created a system of priority teachers-on-call and casual EAs.

Its 2022/23 budget created 10 priority teacher-on-call positions and 10 priority EA positions — those employees become full-time staffers of the district and are deployed wherever they’re needed each day.

Robert Weston, the district’s executive director of human resources, said those efforts are continuing to pay dividends.

The district has been able to replace 72.5 per cent of its classroom teacher absences so far this year and 75 per cent of its EA absences, according to a report Weston presented at the school board's Feb. 7 operations committee meeting.

It’s made particularly good progress in getting on-call teachers to cover regular classroom work — replacing 78 per cent of those positions in December 2022 and 87 per cent in January 2023.

“Obviously, no classrooms go without a teacher,” Weston said, noting non-enrolling (specialist) teachers or administrators would be filling in the rest of the gaps.

‘Our goal here is 100 per cent’: Filling absences will hit SD40 budget

He added the district is still working to bring those numbers up further.

“Obviously our goal here is 100 per cent, and we still strive for that,” he said.

Replacement rates for specialist teachers remain low, with just 40 per cent of non-enrolling teacher absences replaced in December, and 42 per cent in January.

Weston said the New Westminster school district still faces the challenge of competing with larger school districts for on-call staff. Plus, he noted, many on-call employees in the “post-COVID economy” are choosing not to make themselves as available as they were before, which is a challenge facing many school districts.

Secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham said the district’s continued push to hire more on-call staff will have a budget impact for the 2023/24 school year. She pointed out that the more successful the district is in filling absences, the more money it costs.

“We do anticipate a trend upwards and having to budget some additional amounts,” she said, but added she doesn’t yet have specifics.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, [email protected]