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COVID-19: How Alberta’s 4 biggest school boards are planning for substitute teachers

Desks are set up in a Calgary classroom ahead of the 2020 start to the school year.
Desks are set up in a Calgary classroom ahead of the 2020 start to the school year. Global News

With an unprecedented school year just around the corner, many are expecting a higher number of absent teachers in Alberta’s classrooms as a result of COVID-19 guidelines.

Substitute teachers will be filling many holes at schools across the province, and with that comes elevated concern about whether educators moving between schools might pose a higher risk of transmission.

Read more: Symptoms, confirmed cases and outbreaks: How Alberta plans to handle COVID-19 in schools

The government of Alberta said it won’t be limiting where substitute teachers can work and how many schools or classrooms they can teach in. When they are going into schools, substitutes are expected to follow the same public health measures that are in place for all other staff and students, including wearing a mask.

“Where possible, it is good for substitute teachers to limit the number of schools they teach at,” government spokesperson Ted Bauer said in an emailed statement to Global News.

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“Substitute teachers have the choice which schools to work at and are not required to work at multiple schools.”

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University of Calgary associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases Dr. Craig Jenne said ideally, substitute teachers would cohort and do their best to limit travelling between schools. However, he said teachers working in multiple schools “doesn’t necessarily elevate the risk.”

“Most schools, this won’t be a big problem unless we actually have active cases in the school,” Jenne said. “But the hard part is we sometimes don’t know there’s an active case until a couple [of] days after the infectious period.”

Read more: Lockdowns and a second wave? What the coronavirus pandemic could look like this fall

Jenne said substitute teachers moving between schools won’t necessarily make contact tracing more difficult, as schools will be keeping logs, but it would make the process more time consuming for those tasked with finding and contacting people they’ve been in contact with.

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“If there were enough staff, I’d love to see more limits on moving between the schools not only in a given day, even perhaps within a given week,” Jenne said, adding that would give time for symptoms to develop if someone had been exposed or for them to get a call from contract tracers.

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said the association has been asking whether there would be limits on the movement of substitutes, but none have been implemented. He said the association wants to see a minimum safety standard for substitute teachers.

“When they go into a school, there should be things set aside specifically for the sub to use that day,” Schilling said.

“So a laptop that hasn’t been used by anyone [that is] disinfected and ready to go, masks, other PPE if they should need it, hand sanitizer — to essentially have a substitute box so subs are safe when they go into the building.”

The government has made individual boards responsible for making guidelines for substitute teachers, saying they “have the autonomy and accountability to make decisions about the programming and operations of their schools.”

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Here’s a look at the considerations Alberta’s four biggest school districts have in place to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread this school year:

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Calgary Board of Education

Substitute teachers will be allowed to move between schools within the Calgary Board of Education this fall, but the board is recommending they try to only teach in one school per day — and one classroom within that school — to help limit any potential spread of COVID-19.

“It is ultimately up to the substitute teacher how many assignments/locations they accept in a day,” CBE spokesperson Megan Geyer said in an email.

Read more: What will the fall school year will look like? Calgary Board of Education releases return-to-school plan

The board said it wasn’t worried about whether contact tracing would be more difficult with substitute teachers coming into multiple schools, as it will be keeping records of anyone entering classrooms each day.

The CBE is also not requiring that substitute teachers cohort but said teachers can self-cohort if they want and accept assignments based on their cohorts.

“Substitute teachers may, therefore, choose to limit the number of schools or areas they accept job assignments for in the 2020-21 school year, without penalty or prejudice,” Geyer said.

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The CBE said it has increased its substitute teacher roster by more than 30 per cent for the fall semester and expects to have close to 1,800 educators available.

Calgary Catholic School Board

The Calgary Catholic School Board said it won’t be limiting the schools substitute teachers can work in, adding they “will be allowed to pick up assignments based on their skills and qualifications and what schools they have made themselves available for.”

However, spokesperson Sandra Borowski said the board is encouraging teachers to limit the number of schools they pick up shifts at.

Whether teachers can work in multiple classrooms in a school on any given day will be up to the principal of each school and what precautions they’ve put in place, the board said.

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Read more: Coronavirus: Calgary public schools mandate masks for all K-12 students, teachers for fall semester

Electronic systems will track where subs have worked, so the CCSD doesn’t expect to face any additional challenges with contact tracing.

The CCSD said because it can’t speculate what the absentee rate for permanent teaching staff will be, it couldn’t estimate how many substitute teachers it expects to have working in its schools in the fall.

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Edmonton Catholic School District

The Edmonton Catholic School District said it has assigned substitute teachers to specific sites.

“If there are more absences at a school beyond what the assigned subs can handle, we will have substitutes available to be called to different sites,” spokesperson Lori Nagy said.

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“If we notice through monitoring absence data that a specific school is needing additional subs beyond the number assigned, we have the ability to add a permanent sub.”

Read more: Homeschooling, online classes: Alternatives to in-class learning for Alberta families

Teachers can apply for the cohort substitute positions, and the number of substitutes assigned to each school will depend on things like medical appointments and sick leave, the board said.

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Nagy said the teachers will likely be moving between classrooms in schools on any given day, week or month.

The ECSD has about 650 substitute teachers on its roster heading into the fall semester.

Edmonton Public School Board

The Edmonton Public School Board said it’s following the province’s guidelines for substitute teachers and won’t be restricting where they can work within the district.

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“We are encouraging schools to create designated substitute lists, to help limit the number of supply teachers entering a school,” chief human resources officer Angela Anderson said in an emailed statement.

Read more: Alberta school boards appreciate federal funding but some ‘disappointed’ by province’s response

Any substitute teachers going into schools will be required to follow the same protocols in place for permanent teachers, staff and students, Anderson said. The substitutes will be tracked through the board’s supply management system.

The EPSB currently has 1,718 substitute teachers on its roster and is working to confirm how many will be available in the fall.

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The government announced in July that students will be heading back to the classroom in the fall under school re-entry Scenario 1: near-normal daily operations and added health measures.

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