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Substitute teacher and EA shortage hurting students learning, safety: Ontario Principals’ Council

School boards in the Greater Toronto Area are sounding the alarm on the worsening effect of employee staffing shortages across the board that they say are hurting student learning and safety. 

The shortage includes educational assistants (EAs) and substitute teachers. 

And while the Ontario government said it has put a number of measures in place to alleviate the strain, many say those measures fall short.

The shortages are having a negative impact on learning and safety for students, said the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC), which represents 5,400 principals and vice-principals in the province’s public elementary and secondary schools.

As a result, students who went back to school Monday in the GTA are likely to return to schools dealing with burnout, unfilled positions and cancelled classes, said OPC President Ralph Nigro.

“Our principals and vice principals are run off their feet each and every day. This is not a problem that only impacts some schools [or] some boards,” Nigro told CBC Toronto.

“This is a widespread issue across the province and has been [for] the last several years. It isn’t getting better, it’s actually getting worse.”

The council called on the province last November, noting more needed to be done in order to help recruit and attract permanent staff, provide immediate funding for more supervision, hire more EAs and ensure better working conditions and salaries for them.

Shortages have ‘profound negative impact’ on students

Nigro said the issue stems from a high number of widening vacancies across the board and difficulty recruiting new staff.

He said it’s particularly challenging to attract more educational assistants and substitute teachers.That in turn causes schools to not have enough replacements to backfill for leaves and absences — all of which are largely impacting vulnerable students, said Nigro. 

“Our educational assistants work with our most vulnerable, our most medically fragile students. Those students in particular rely on relationships that are built with them by the education professionals, the teachers and the support staff and educational assistants who play a big role and they establish routine for those students and they help them to feel safe,” he said.

“When that consistency is impacted, then this has a very profound negative impact on students on everything from behaviour on their like of their school and their willingness to attend school every day. So that’s very concerning to us.”

The Ontario Principals’ Council has made a number of recommendations to the province, calling on the government to provide financial incentives to recruit more educational assistants.

“We need the ministry to more closely monitor staff shortage data on a board by board basis and ask the boards what their plans are,” Nigro said.

The Ministry of Education said Monday it has increased funding to the highest levels in provincial history, along with the hiring of 7,500 additional educators and staff.

“Ontario has introduced a suite of actions to counter this national challenge of teacher absenteeism, including the hiring of 2,000 additional teachers this school year and halving processing timelines for domestic and international applicants,” Isha Chaudhuri, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, said in an email Monday.

“Our government has now permanently allowed second-year teaching candidates to work in schools faster and revoked seniority-based hiring to enable more rapid hiring that is merit-based.”

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) building at 5050 Yonge Street is pictured on Feb. 1, 2023.
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said the board is largely seeing occasional staff not pick up a number of open jobs from teaching, to education assistance, on top of a staffing shortage the board is experiencing. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), said the board is currently seeing shortages “right across a number of job categories.

“We are seeing largely occasional staff not picking up the number of open jobs that we are seeing across the system, whether that being in teaching, designated early childhood educators, educational assistance, caretaking,” Bird told CBC Toronto.

“We are actively doing targeted recruitment where needed, but more importantly we’re trying to do everything we can to increase the uptake among occasional staff to really to accept those open jobs.”

Toronto parent Craig Johnston said Monday he supports any recommendations in effort to hire more staff including substitute teachers, lunchroom supervisors and EAs.

“I am supporting whatever increase or demands [staff] are looking for,”said Johnston, whose kids attend the TDSB. 

“I am concerned, routine is important for kids and it’s important for them to have a safe presence in the classroom with teachers and EAs.”

GTA school boards ‘actively recruiting’ more staff

Bird said the staff shortages at the TDSB have been on ongoing issue since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The school board is working to hire more support staff, he said. 

“We’re doing everything we can to increase the uptake in occasional staff to accept those open jobs,” he said.

“What we’re doing now is making do with what we have but making sure we’re doing that as smartly as possible.”

Similarly to the TDSB, the Toronto Catholic District School Board and Peel District School Board said they are actively continuing to recruit and hire new staff, including supply EAs to cover unfilled positions.

York Region District School Board said while its coverage rate for absent staff members are similar to last year, with roughly 96 and 90 per cent for elementary and secondary students respectively, its “highest needs area” for hiring continues to be EAs.

“The Board continues to recruit and hire on a monthly basis to add to the casual lists, and occasional teacher rosters to ensure service delivery and staffing coverage within schools,” the board said in an email Monday.

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