High rates of student and teacher absences related to the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted school boards in Western Canada to shift an increasing number of classes online, highlighting the difficulties in maintaining in-person learning.
Schools in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia reopened earlier than most other provinces after the winter break, and their experience could offer a glimpse of what to expect as students return to classrooms in other parts of the country.
Regina Public Schools on Tuesday said all of its high-school students will study online between Jan. 20 and 24 to maximize the number of teachers available for final assessments, while minimizing the chance pupils will have to miss the tests because of COVID-19 exposures.
Saskatoon Public Schools shifted two schools to remote learning this week, including one experiencing a nursing shortage for its medically fragile students with multiple disabilities. In Alberta, dozens of schools in Calgary and Edmonton have moved classes online.
Saskatchewan was the only province to bring students back as scheduled in the first week of January, while students in Alberta and B.C. returned to class Jan. 10.
Patrick Maze, head of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, said the province’s schools are in chaos as officials struggle with staffing shortages, quick shifts to online learning, and changes such as cancelled exams.
“It is embarrassing to even call it an education system because there’s very little education going on,” Mr. Maze said. “There’s so many transitions and so many disruptions.”
Calgary Board of Education said roughly 7 per cent of its students were absent because of unspecified illnesses Jan. 17, while Edmonton Public Schools said 4 per cent were missing because of COVID-19 and another 3 per cent because of other illnesses. The Edmonton public board said schools have moved 10 classes online, while 14 of the Calgary board’s schools have moved at least one of their classes online.
Calgary Catholic School District shifts classes online for 10 days when 25 per cent of a class misses school for medical reasons; the board on Tuesday said 25 classes had hit the trigger. Edmonton Catholic Schools has moved 13 classes online.
Schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan were hit by high rates of absent teachers and support staff when classes resumed earlier this month, and the problem has since worsened. In Calgary’s public schools, for example, 817 teachers were absent Tuesday, and the division was unable to fill 308 of those spots.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s two million students were set to return to school buildings on Monday, but a snowstorm closed many schools in the Toronto area.
The Toronto District School Board said students had a second snow day on Tuesday, which again meant no remote learning as well. In an e-mail to families, the board said 36 schools still needed to have snow removed from their roofs before students and staff could enter the building – a task that could not be completed on Monday because of poor road and weather conditions.
The board sent an e-mail to families saying schools would reopen to in-person learning on Wednesday.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board reopened its buildings on Tuesday but did not provide figures on absences. Darcy Knoll, a board spokesman, said “we can expect higher absence rates” because of road conditions and school-bus cancellations.
He said that no classes or schools were closed or moved online on Tuesday because of staff absences.
Similarly, Scott Scantlebury, a spokesman for the Greater Essex County District School Board in Windsor, said that classrooms have managed to operate with supply teachers, and no classes have shifted to virtual learning.
In Nova Scotia, where schools reopened to in-person learning on Monday, Doug Hadley, a spokesman for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, said substitute teachers and retired administrators are filling in the gaps left by staff absences. He said that staff who work in the central board office would also be temporarily reassigned to a classroom, if necessary.
“It is our goal to keep schools open as it is the best place for students’ emotional, social, physical and intellectual well-being and development,” Mr. Hadley said.
He did not have figures on staff absences when requested by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday but indicated that they could come later this week.
The head of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union said he’s heard that schools are putting non-certified instructors in classrooms as they scramble to keep schools open.
“Staff are struggling,” Paul Wozney said.
In B.C., the Ministry of Education said in a statement that five schools have been temporarily closed because of staffing since Jan. 10. Among those, two have reopened.
It said functional closings can happen in the event of snow days, power outages, water-main breaks, and other unique circumstances. In this case, the statement noted, the situation could arise that owing to staff illness, a school has insufficient staff to provide safe supervision of children, or to provide instruction for an extended duration. It added that the threshold for this decision is made at the school or district level to best reflect the unique needs of each school.
Armstrong Elementary, in B.C.’s Interior, is expected to be closed until Jan. 21. Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said several factors forced the closing of the elementary school, including teacher shortage and a declaration of unsafe work around students declining to wear masks or too many students exempted from wearing face coverings.
“This also is a provincewide issue, not just an issue in Armstrong.”
Kevin Kaardal, superintendent for Central Okanagan school district, said 6.6 per cent of students in his district were absent because of illness. The total absentee rate reaches 17 per cent, but that includes all excused absences, he noted.
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