The head of a Manitoba association for retired teachers says his members are being offered too little pay and insufficient protection as the province asks retirees to return to schools as substitutes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bill Cann, president of the Retired Teachers’ Association of Manitoba, says the province is facing a “looming crisis” if it can’t enlist more substitute teachers — but he says his association is being shut out of planning, and government isn’t doing enough for the members who have chosen to go back.
“The majority of those people are basically putting their life on the line, for minimal pay, because they care about kids, and/or the relationship that they’ve had with a school in their neighborhood,” Cann said on Wednesday.
Education leaders, including the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, have already flagged the potential for a shortage of substitute teachers, as absenteeism rises in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers have also reported high stress levels and overwork as they juggle in-class teaching, virtual learning and enforcing pandemic safety precautions.
Cann says his association, which represents roughly 10,000 retired teachers, and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society were asked by the province earlier this year to put a call out to members to work as substitutes.
The association is calling for all substitute teachers — not just retirees — to be paid the same per day rate as other teachers, and for sick leave for subs who are required to self-isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19.
Currently, substitute teachers make a fraction of what full-time teachers make per day, Cann said, and aren’t entitled to benefits.
“[These are] really realistic requests to improve the working conditions for substitute teachers in general, especially given the fact that they’re sitting on $80 million of federal money,” he said, referring a federal pledge of $85.4 million to help the province reopen schools safely.
Without better conditions, Cann said he fears the province won’t entice enough substitute teachers to support schools.
“Things are going to get to the point where they’re going to wind up closing schools — and not because they’re in a red zone, simply because there’s not going to be staff to cover the responsibilities with children.”
Left out of consultations: association
Many recent education graduates and teachers who had previously worked as substitutes have been hired by school divisions in preparation for the school year, Cann said. While he supports that move, he says it whittles down the pool of substitute teachers.
He fears the brunt of that impact will fall on rural areas, where retired teachers already make up a large part of the substitute teaching workforce.
A provincial spokesperson said Thursday morning the province has reached out for support on recruitment efforts, but has not received a request for a meeting from the association.
“The province is not the employing authority but the department is happy to reach out to discuss further,” the spokesperson wrote.
The province does not employ substitute teachers — that’s done by school divisions. However, it is aware of the requests for higher pay and sick leave, and all options are being reviewed and considered with partners, the spokesperson wrote.
The province is also aware of the staffing challenges facing schools during the pandemic and planning is already happening, he added.
“This has been identified as a risk since the outset as part of the Restoring Safe Schools plan,” the spokesperson wrote. “Like all sectors, this is a concern and school divisions have been planning for this.”
Cann said he also wants to see more consultation with retired teachers moving forward. So far, he said, the association has not had a seat at the table during regular meetings between other leaders and the province on education planning.
“I don’t think the politicians realize,” he said. “I don’t understand why they don’t realize it, because I know [Manitoba Teachers’ Society president] James Bedford has been very clear on the looming crisis.”