'It's very frustrating': Calgary schools dealing with staffing, substitute teacher shortages

Calgary's largest school board continues to deal with staffing shortages as schools struggle to find substitute teachers to fill absences.

A letter was sent home to guardians of students at Colonel Irvine School in the city's northwest, outlining the issues filling absences, which has led to some classes being consolidated.

"For us as a school, it is worse now staffing-wise then it has been anytime over the past two years," read the email. "We have been collapsing PE classes so that we can use a PE teacher to cover a class elsewhere, and as a result the students aren't always doing their modules, which we know most prefer. By far the largest disruption has been to our Specialized Literacy Program."

Jacqueline Derondeau has a son in grade eight and says she's frustrated with the impact the shortage is having on students.

"My son has had probably three different math teachers and they don't know his previous progress so it can be challenging to see where he’s at considering some teachers aren’t able to get feedback because they’ve only been around a couple of weeks," said Derondeau. "It’s hard to keep up with what teacher my son has for certain subjects."

The Calgary Board of Education says over the month of April it has seen an increase in both student and staff with COVID-related absences and has prioritized maintaining in-person learning.

“The need for substitutes was previously generally significantly lower in situations where either all schools or specific grade levels were learning online,” read a statement.

In April, the demand for substitute teachers increase by 125 per day compared to the same month last year.

Meantime, the number of unfilled positions averaged close to 190 per day in April compared to 64 in April 2020.

The CBE says it has been working to address the issue by hiring 500 teachers and on-boarded 250 new substitute teachers since November.

According to the president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, staffing shortages have been a consistent issue throughout the pandemic.

"We have seen shortages of substitute teachers not just in Calgary but across multiple jurisdiction across Alberta where teachers are ill or other staff are ill and they are unable to find people to cover those classes," said Jason Schilling. "That leaves the rest of the school scrambling to cover for those folks."

Schilling says, as a result of filling in to help out, teachers are losing preparation time for their own classes and face burnout after more than two years of managing challenges from COVID-19.

"I’ve also heard stories of classes being doubled up in terms of one teacher taking all the students into their room," added Schilling. "When we’re talking about COVID and increasing social distancing that's a bit problematic."

The ATA says it's not sustainable for teachers to fill in on a regular basis and would like to see the province provide a contract to substitute teachers.

"Substitute teachers don’t have the same kinds of benefit security as other individuals working in education so, if they become ill themselves they just can’t work so they’re mindful of that as well."

As of Monday, 447 of 729 teaching jobs and 310 of 528 support staff jobs were filled across the CBE.

Calgary Catholic School District issued a statement, saying it "currently has more than 1,100 guest teachers on our roster, the highest number we have had in the past five years."

"Despite having a high number of guest teachers, the CCSD is still facing challenges with fill rates, which remain lower than pre-pandemic levels," it said.

"Our human resources department continues to look for strong teaching candidates to join our roster."

Katherine Stavropoulos, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, issued a statement Monday afternoon saying staffing decisions, including hiring additional substitute teachers, "are the responsibility of individual school authorities, who continue to have the autonomy and flexibility to allocate resources as need demands."

"As of August 2021, CBE reported $38.8 million in operating reserves. In February 2022, Alberta Education approved CBE’s request to access $14 million from its reserves for costs incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, including costs related to substitute teachers and new temporary staff," it read.

"CBE has also shared that they have hired over 500 new staff since November 2021. Alberta’s government has maintained record funding for Education in Budget 2022. Throughout the pandemic, school divisions have, at times, faced operational issues as a result of staff absences. The government has worked closely with school authorities to address these issues as needed and will continue to do so.

"School authorities will continue to have the flexibility to shift a class or an individual grade to short-term at-home learning if needed to address operational challenges at a school. Decisions on shifting entire schools or school authorities to at-home learning will continue to be made by the Alberta government, with input from school authorities."