“Critical” shortages creating extra work, stress for schools

By Daniel Adam
Staff Writer

Starting at 6 a.m. most mornings, J.W. Walker School principal Sonja Bodnarchuk says she’s getting her school’s rescheduling in order until about 9 a.m.

“It can be stressful first thing in the morning,” she says. “It’s definitely concerning.”

The Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) has been experiencing a shortage of EAs, teachers, substitutes, and occasional caretakers.

“That’s creating a great deal of pressure on our schools,” says RRDSB director of education Heather Campbell.

She says principals and vice-principals will get up, look at the list of absences, and then reschedule. Campbell says administration must pause certain programming so teachers can be reassigned to cover a class, or work one-on-one with students who need support.

“If you’re short one person it’s a pretty good day,” says Bodnarchuk. “If you’re short five or six, it’s a busy morning.”

Campbell says the shortages aren’t unique to the area.

“Every board in Ontario is expressing concern to the government and the Ministry of Education,” she says. “The shortages have been increasingly more apparent over the last five years, and has really hit a critical point in the last two.”

Though the shortages are difficult to mediate, Campbell says it’s important to maintain students’ continuity of learning.

“Other school boards have cancelled classes and sent kids home,” she says. “We don’t want to do that. We need to still have classrooms open.”

Because of the shortages, Campbell says there’s a group of staff who work as unqualified teachers.

“We’re really careful of who we put in the classrooms because certainly, that can be challenging if you don’t have the training,” she says.

And in the District, there aren’t many options.

“You look at our area and there’s only one teacher’s college in northwestern Ontario,” says Campbell. “And that’s supposed to feed all the school boards and schools within the region.”

Campbell says there are a number of factors causing these scarcities. She pointed to handful of changes in the past decade which have likely led to what they’re experiencing now.

“I think it was 2015/16 when they switched from a one-year program to a two-year degree program and that certainly added more cost to anyone interested in pursuing teaching as a profession,” she said, noting both tuition and accommodation expenses. “There’s a lot of other costs associated with going to teacher’s college and that just increased substantially when they went from one to two years.”

According to a government press release, issued by the Wynne government in 2013, the province also reduced per-student funding for Faculties of Education and cut admissions in half system-wide, to address an over-supply of qualified teachers, which existed at the time.

According to Campbell, reducing admissions meant some Faculties of education were unable to offer specialized programs, such as computer science, due to low enrolment.

Campbell also noted that when Regulation 274 was in effect, between 2012 and 2020, it may have warded off possible future educators.

According to the Toronto Star, Reg. 274 was intended to combat a perception of nepotism in hiring, and it guided boards to offer full-time positions to candidates from their long-term occasional list, based largely on seniority.

However, new teachers needed to put in substantial time on the supply roster — which often couldn’t be transferred to other boards — in order to join the long-term occasional list. This meant some new teachers coming out of college would need to supply teach for several years, before they could be considered for a permanent job.

Reg. 274 was revoked in 2020, in favour of a merit, diversity, and lived experience hiring model, according to a Ford administration press release.

According to the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), staff shortages are impacting all regions of the province. Unemployment rates for newly graduated primary-junior teachers have fallen from 16 per cent in 2017 to two per cent in 2021. Many boards have turned to licensing unqualified teachers, to backfill supply rosters on an emergency basis. According to the OCT, 1,000 unqualified teachers were granted temporary licenses in the second half of 2021 province-wide.