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Alberta students board a school bus, as they return to school today for the first time since their holiday break was extended due to surging COVID-19 cases, near Cremona, Alta., on Jan. 10.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan, facing a staffing shortage owing to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, are struggling to find enough substitute teachers to fill the void, forcing boards to reassign employees such as teacher-librarians and consultants to classrooms in order to keep functioning.

The staffing crunch on the Prairies came as Ontario confirmed that students in the province would resume in-person classes next Monday as planned.

In Calgary and Edmonton, more than 2,500 teachers and other staff members were absent Monday, when Alberta reopened schools after extending the winter break by a week. By noon, two of Calgary’s public schools had shifted five classes to online learning. In Saskatchewan, where students returned last week, schools are surviving by shuffling employees into temporary roles.

Doctors, parents and educators are increasingly divided over in-person learning as the virus spreads more rapidly than it has in the past. The challenge facing officials is balancing the risk of COVID-19, which is often relatively mild in children, with the academic and social harm caused by missing in-school time.

“We are doing everything immediately possible to remain open for in-person learning, including moving principals and other school-based staff into the classroom,” said Megan Geyer, a spokeswoman for the Calgary Board of Education. “The use of positions like principals and learning strategists can be applied for emergent, short-term time periods, but are otherwise not sustainable.”

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The Calgary board tallied 681 vacant teaching positions on Monday, with 30 per cent of those unfilled by 8:00 a.m. The school district also counted 436 absences among support staff, such as education assistants and lunchroom supervisors, with 22 per cent of those slots going unfilled, Ms. Geyer said.

The Calgary Catholic School District said 276 staff members were absent Monday, with 35 per cent of the vacancies related to COVID-19. Catholic board spokeswoman Felicia Zuniga said 80 per cent of the spots were filled by external personnel, with the remaining 20 per cent by reassigned district employees.

Edmonton Public Schools reported 454 absences among teachers Monday, with about 5 per cent of those spots going unfilled. Another 252 educational assistants missed work, and the board was only able to fill about half of those slots, according to spokeswoman Megan Normandeau. Further, Edmonton Catholic Schools counted 420 staff members absent, including 217 teachers, according to spokeswoman Christine Meadows.

“We are doing our best to safeguard and maintain in-person learning but we are anticipating challenges in the days ahead,” Ms. Meadows said.

In Alberta, local administrators can decide whether to shift certain classes online, but they need provincial approval to move an entire school or district to remote learning. Alberta “received and accepted” two such requests as of Monday afternoon, said Dylan Topal, a spokesman for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. He did not say which schools or authorities made the requests.

Only schools in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have opened their doors to in-person learning. Students in other provinces are learning online.

In Ontario, two million students are expected to return to in-person learning on Jan. 17 after their classes moved online for two weeks, Premier’s Office spokeswoman Ivana Yelich confirmed Monday.

The Ontario government has also promised to provide N95 masks to staff in schools and daycares, and will deploy 3,000 HEPA filter units to schools, in addition to the 70,000 already in place. The province is prioritizing education workers for booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines while making it easier for retired teachers to work.

The Canadian Paediatric Society and other organizations have urged provinces to reopen schools.

Ruth Grimes, a pediatrician in Winnipeg and president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, said the education and mental health of children has been “sacrificed plenty throughout this pandemic.” She and her colleagues have seen changes in weight for children, significant disruptions in their sleep routines, depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

“The fact that schools have been closed for an extended period of time already and we still see community spread rising and we still see hospitalizations rising,” Dr. Grimes said. “Children are not driving this pandemic and they never have.”

Saskatchewan was the only province that did not delay reopening schools after the winter holidays.

“Our staffing is stretched thin right now,” said Veronica Baker, a spokeswoman for Saskatoon Public Schools. “Along with calling in substitutes, some staff are being redirected to classroom assignments as needed, including educators that work in roles based at our board office.”

The board is reassigning resource teachers, English-as-an-additional-language teachers and teacher-librarians to specific classrooms to cover for absent educators, Ms. Baker said.

This juggling comes with consequences, said Patrick Maze, head of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. For example, when an English-as-an-additional-language teacher is reassigned, this means students who require extra help go without.

“This is not sustainable,” he said.

Ritinder Matthew, a spokeswoman for the Surrey School District, the largest in B.C., said all schools were in session Monday and sufficiently staffed.

She noted staff absenteeism was a bit higher, but nothing unusual. Ms. Matthew said the district has a large pool of on-call teachers and support staff, but schools are preparing to shift to at-home learning if there’s an insufficient number of staff on-site at a particular school.

“Our hope is that we can manage the situation, but we recognize that there is a risk that we may be short-staffed and may have to make some alterations within schools, including moving to at-home learning for a few days,” she said in an e-mail.

On average, the district’s absentee rates on Monday were about 4 per cent higher than in early December.

With files from Jeff Gray in Ontario

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