Substitute hiring spree could plug staffing holes in Winnipeg schools due to COVID-19, divisions say

It’s a quick transition from student to full-time teacher, but Sara Jantzen is happy she and hundreds of new grads fresh out of post-secondary education programs will be able to pitch in as school worker absences rise amid Manitoba’s third wave.

Some schools are scrambling to plug holes as staffing shortages climb, but several divisions may be buoyed by an influx of recent grads like Jantzen who have just been hired to work as substitute teachers.

“We’re just thankful to be here and to fill the holes in the system, but there is a lot of pressure on teachers right now,” said Jantzen, who recently graduated with from the University of Winnipeg’s education program.

Jantzen’s new job teaching grades 6 to 8 at H.C. Avery school in The Maples, part of the Seven Oaks School Division, started on Monday.

She was hired as a supply teacher, which is a substitute hired with the expectation they will work most days and can be shifted around to different classrooms or schools as needed.

Jantzen is one of 150 new education grads Seven Oaks just hired on a full-time, term basis as substitutes. About 40 of them will work daily right off the hop, said Seven Oaks Supt. Brian O’Leary.

114 vacancies in a day

He said Sevens Oaks had 114 staff vacancies as of Friday due to COVID-19 cases and isolation requirements, and the division was only able to fill 71 of those positions.

The division had to cancel some high school classes and pull in teachers from other areas to ensure younger students were supervised.

“We had to scramble,” said O’Leary on Monday.

Some Manitoba schools particularly in Winnipeg are in the midst of scrambling to fill rising school worker absences amid the third wave. There were 114 such absences in the Seven Oaks School Division alone on Friday. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

The Winnipeg School Division has also hired 95 new education graduates and 85 pending new grads as substitute teachers, said WSD spokesperson Radean Carter in an email.

That’s on top of 37 new subs hired since February, she said, bringing the division-wide substitute contingent to 1,335 teachers the division is “fully utilizing” right now. 

“We’ve seen an increase in the number of unfilled positions over the past two weeks and these additional substitutes will help,” Carter said.

O’Leary is also optimistic new hires in Seven Oaks will alleviate pressure.

“They’re eager to work and we’re hoping that the shortages, which did start to get pronounced at the end of last week, aren’t going to be affecting us in that same way for the rest of this year,” he said. “Everybody in the system is tired and running out of steam.”

Schools go remote

As of Wednesday, there were over 400 COVID-19 cases in students and school staff, according to the provincial dashboard, and about a fifth of those cases are staff. Over a third all active cases in Manitoba right now are school-age kids and youth.

Public health officials confirmed there is one official outbreak in the system currently at École Marie-Anne Gaboury in Winnipeg — one of two declared last month. There have been nine official school outbreaks during the pandemic.

“By far the cases that are associated with schools are acquired outside of school,” Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer. said during a Monday news conference.

The union that represents teachers last week called for all Winnipeg schools to be moved to code red, or critical, under the province’s pandemic response system. That would usher in citywide remote learning.

Roussin said there are no current plans to implement provincewide school closures, but several schools made that virtual shift on their own in recent weeks.

Three in the Louis Riel School Division are currently remote learning due to cases and “the growing inability to fill the increasing number of staff absences due to self-isolation requirements,” according to a letter sent to parents in the division.

River East Transcona School Division has 53 full-time substitute teachers in its division, including 21 new education grads, a spokesperson said. The division has seen an uptick in cases and absences lately but managed to fill most of them.

As of Monday, about 10 per cent of school staff positions were unfilled in the Pembina Trails School Division due to absences, according to a spokesperson. The division has benefited from a pool of 500 substitute teachers created last summer that includes new grads.

Still, three River East schools are back to remote learning for two weeks, the spokesperson said.

O’Leary isn’t a proponent of shifting back to remote learning in Seven Oaks.

“We’re just displacing the burden,” he said. “The best thing honestly to improve teacher morale would be to open up vaccination to all teachers and back off some of the education reform notions that the government is pushing.”

Prioritizing teachers for vaccines

Educators and unions that represent them have for weeks called on the province to prioritize school workers for vaccination.

Manitoba has instead opted for a geographical model that extends eligibility to all adults in select high-risk areas. Eligibility extends to people in public-facing jobs — including school workers — who work but don’t necessarily live in those areas.

Premier Brian Pallister announced last week Manitoba is also working on a deal that could see school workers get vaccinated in North Dakota.

That plan has been panned by teachers and unions. A provincial spokesperson said Manitoba is doing what it can to ensure school workers are “vaccinated more quickly than federal vaccine supply currently allows.”

More details are expected this week.