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Several Canadian school boards have put out a plea to retired educators and non-certified instructors asking for help to fill some of the gaps in a pandemic-fuelled teacher shortage.

School administrators face the possibility of temporarily closing schools or classrooms not only because of COVID-19 outbreaks, but also when staff are away and no replacements are available to supervise students.

Absenteeism has gone up because teachers are advised to stay home if they have one or more symptoms of COVID-19, or their cohorts have suspected or confirmed cases.

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“Our reserve bank [of substitute teachers] is thin,” said Alain Perron, a spokesman for the Commission scolaire de Montréal. “Among other things, we have called on retired teachers and instructors who are not certified.”

Certified teachers have graduated with a degree in education and received a certificate from their provincial regulatory body. In exceptional circumstances, boards have asked people to temporarily fill some specialty positions or specific curricular areas because of a shortage of substitute teachers.

Until recently, many new graduates in several provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, could not find teaching positions. In Ontario, for example, the unemployment rate for new teachers is less than 10 per cent now (and non-existent for French-language graduates) compared with about 40 per cent seven years ago. Boards are reaching out to retirees and non-certified instructors, and deploying teachers who now work at board offices and support staff into classrooms.

The Ontario College of Teachers, a regulatory body, recently requested help in an e-mail to 130,000 retired teachers, those who have been suspended from the college for non-payment of fees but remain in good standing, and to new graduates who may not yet be certified. The provincial government allowed families to choose between in-class and online learning, which required school boards to find more teachers.

“In short, you are needed,” the e-mail from the college said. “Your significant and specialized knowledge and skills are needed.”

A spokeswoman for the college said about 600 people responded asking how to reinstate their membership and “indicating a willingness to help.”

Tony Pontes, executive director of the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, said boards in the province are “scrambling every day” to fill teaching positions as a result of increased absenteeism. The number of substitute teachers is limited, he added. The Upper Canada District School Board in Brockville said that on any given day over the past week, it had about 500 jobs to be filled. The board said finding staff has become increasingly difficult, and more than 150 positions often go unfilled. That means schools were short-staffed and others had to fill the void.

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Meanwhile, some boards have still not assigned teachers to virtual classrooms. The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, said on Tuesday that about 80 French teachers were still required, and it was looking at other options.

“Some boards are already beginning to talk about the possibility that if teacher absences actually increase due to COVID or due to even the seasonal flu that they might be in a position where they have to cancel a class for a day because it would be unsafe to have children unsupervised,” Mr. Pontes said. “It is quite a significant issue.”

In a letter to the Ontario Teachers' Federation earlier this month, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, deputy Minister of Education Nancy Naylor asked that the 50-day limit that retired teachers can work while collecting their pensions be suspended for this academic year.

Mr. Perron in Montreal said the board has been interviewing and hiring candidates. He added that the pandemic has reduced the number of international hires. “In this unusual return ... hiring challenges are unfortunately even more acute,” he said.

Janice McCoy, superintendent of human resources at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said one of the issues facing board staff is that they have to fill positions for about two weeks if a teacher is away with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. She said she has noticed a higher number of absences so far this year compared with last year.

The city’s French Catholic board sent an e-mail to parents this week calling for non-teachers to help with supervisory duties in schools to deal with staffing shortages. Réjean Sirois, director of education at Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est, wrote that the paid work would help prevent closing a class or a school.

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Ms. McCoy’s board sent a message to families last week saying parents should be prepared for closings if there are not enough staff to supervise students. The message was “not to alarm parents, but to ensure that they had the information,” she said. “We’re trying to be as transparent and open with parents as possible about what is becoming an increasingly challenging situation.”

B.C. had a teacher shortage before the pandemic, and Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers' Federation, expects the situation to worsen.

She said a recent survey from her union found a high percentage of substitute teachers did not plan to work this academic year. Many are retired and in remote or rural areas, Ms. Mooring said.

“We certainly don’t want to see [classes shut down],” Ms. Mooring said. “I do anticipate boards will be hiring more uncertified folks on letters of permission. I anticipate that will happen as a buffer.”

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