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Furniture and files are shown at a school in Brampton, Ont. on July 23, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

As school boards across the country prepare for the return of classes this fall, the fate of daily supply teachers – who typically work in multiple classrooms and schools per week – is still being ironed out. An Ottawa board has already moved to restrict the number of schools supply staff can teach in.

Some supply staff are concerned that moving between schools and classrooms could increase the risk of exposure or spread of COVID-19. They say school boards need to strike a balance between staff and student safety, and the growing need for labour ahead of an unprecedented school year.

“Public health guidelines, since the beginning of the pandemic, have asked employees to remain home if they are feeling sick,” said Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease specialist from the University Health Network. “And if this is to be respected, then supply teachers will be required to fill that gap.”

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Dr. Bogoch said the risk of supply staff transmitting COVID-19 between schools depends on the risk of community transmission, which has been “very low in most communities across the country.”

“[But] the risk is certainly there,” he added. “It’s probably low, but it’s real.”

In July, Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children published a 34-page report detailing recommendations for the safe reopening of schools. It suggested that supply teachers be assigned to a single school as long as possible “for their own safety and for the safety of other teachers and students.” It also suggested a “minimum two-week interval between assignments” for teachers who need to work in more than one school.

The Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) is one of the first to announce restrictions, saying it anticipates its 1,433 supply teachers will be in demand as regular staff will be asked to stay home if they experience any symptoms of COVID-19.

“As much as possible, we will try to keep occasional teachers assigned to the same school,” said spokesperson Sharlene Hunter, “or the same family of schools.”

An OCSB family of schools is comprised of a secondary school and its surrounding feeder elementary schools. The board’s largest family has eight schools, while its smallest has three.

Most Canadian school boards have shared limited information regarding protocols for supply teachers in the fall. Edmonton Public Schools, Saskatoon Public Schools, the Calgary Board of Education and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board told The Globe and Mail that they are currently developing plans and procedures for their reopening, which include guidelines for supply teachers. The Vancouver School Board said it is awaiting guidance from the provincial government.

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In New Brunswick, the Anglophone West School District is also following provincial guidance.

”At this time, there’s been no restrictions on the number of schools that supply teachers could work in,” said David McTimoney, the board’s superintendent.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest, published a 40-page report detailing its back-to-school plans on Aug. 4. Only four lines mentioned occasional staff.

The board wrote that it has interviewed candidates in spring and summer to build a “robust pool of teachers to be included in the Occasional Teacher Roster,” in the event of higher staff absenteeism.

In an e-mailed statement, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said that provincial discussions are under way concerning the fall plans, and that “included in those discussions is the manner in which absent staff are replaced, protocols for replacement staff, number of sites that one can work at, etc.”

In Leamington, Ont., Greater Essex County District School Board supply teacher Heather Latam said supply staff “really haven’t had any direction yet as to what the daily occasional day or routine will look like coming into fall.”

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Ms. Latam, who has worked as a daily supply teacher for seven years, says she stopped receiving calls to work when the pandemic pushed all classes online in March. Her first concern is whether supply teachers will be given any shifts at all as schools reopen in September, as she is hoping to be able to return to work.

“We’re also concerned about travelling from school to school, from classroom to classroom, and the contacts that we might have,” Ms. Latam added.

Sharon Ciebin, president of the Greater Essex County Occasional Teacher Local, said the union is currently engaged in talks with the school board about protocols for its 400 members. She is suggesting, among other scenarios, that supply teachers only be allowed to work in a limited number of schools.

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