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Manitoba schools feeling the substitute squeeze with more teacher absences

Click to play video: 'Manitoba schools feeling the squeeze with more teacher absences' Manitoba schools feeling the squeeze with more teacher absences
Before COVID-19, many teachers could push through the symptoms of a cold and go to work but now, things have changed -- divisions are reporting calls in sick are up. Global's Amber McGuckin has the details – Sep 29, 2020

Substitute teachers are in high demand and short supply in Winnipeg as more teachers exercise caution and don’t come into school for fear their symptoms may be a sign of COVID-19.

The Louis Riel School Division says because people are more aware of their health, it anticipated an increase in sick calls.

Read more: Winnipeg schools ready for start of strangest school year in recent memory

In 2019, the division’s teachers logged 544 sick days in September; this year they’re already at 762 as of Monday.

Christian Michalik, superintendent of schools with the Louis Riel School Division, says they’ve been working to secure more substitute teachers.

“It continues to be a challenge despite our efforts,” he said.

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“In July, we started a job posting for support teachers – essentially we looked to hire substitute teachers to be a permanent presence in our schools. We hoped we could hire twice the number we were able to hire so we continue to try to hire more. We hired 41. So, permanent substitute teachers, as you will, that were assigned a school and they were active from the start.”

Click to play video: 'John Pritchard School outbreak' John Pritchard School outbreak
John Pritchard School outbreak – Sep 16, 2020

Michalik says the school division has 265 active substitutes.

“We are training weekly new substitute teachers, so that is slowing down the process a little. We have to be careful before having substitute teachers start in the school that we provide them adequate training with respect to the pandemic and how we are navigating that,” he said.

The Winnipeg School Division says it has 200 to 300 substitutes in classrooms daily across the division, adding that it’s marketing, interviewing and hiring more substitutes.

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Rebecca Lerner started her teaching career this school year as a substitute teacher.

She says she didn’t know what to expect stepping into the role but was surprised by the number of calls she gets to fill in for teachers.

“I’ll get calls even when I’m already at another job, or I’ll get a few calls in one night but whatever comes first is what I take,” she said.

“I’m surprised by how many I’ll get in one night as opposed to how many I’m getting total. Even if I get into the system, I’m not available tomorrow or today or whatever, I’ll still get calls, so that’s surprising but it hasn’t been unmanageable.”

Lerner says she’s worked under 10 days as a substitute teacher but estimates she’s been called upwards of 30 times to take on the role.

Read more: Manitoba education minister tries to balance optimism with reality in back-to-school address

The Manitoba government says substitute teachers are able to work across schools but further measures may be put in place in the future, like limiting staff working in multiple schools, if the risk level increases.

Lerner says she was surprised by the rule.

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“Schools are doing really great things like cohorting students and making sure they’re only exposed to a certain number of people, but when you throw substitute teachers into the mix, even if I’m in one division, but I’m in two different schools or two different classrooms even, then that that makes that cohorting a little difficult.

“I try not to feel super nervous, just the best I can do is wear my mask, keep my distance and keep my hands clean and make sure the kids are doing the same and assume there’s COVID in the school and act accordingly.

“Luckily I have felt safe generally in the schools I’ve been in. Schools are taking it very seriously. With cases popping up in different schools, you see them taking action. But I’d say there’s a lot more anxiety about the job. Being a substitute teacher and for classroom teachers and EAs as well.”

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