‘It’s troubling’: Waterloo Region schools grapple with massive staffing shortages

School staff and student absences continue to rise in the sixth wave.

It’s no secret that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have taken a hit, but now, in the sixth wave, Waterloo Region schools are struggling to stay afloat in due to staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 infections.

Waterloo Ontario English Catholic Teacher Association (OECTA) President Patrick Etmanski said that before the pandemic, it was common to have around 30 teacher absences across the Catholic school board each day.

But now they average nearly 100 teacher absences across all subject areas.

“The numbers just went up every week, and every week it seems to be higher,” says Etmanski. “It’s troubling.”

Etmanski says that in most cases, absent teachers aren’t replaced because there just aren’t enough substitute teachers.

In some cases, French teachers teach 6th grade classes and, in desperate times, principals call on local people who are not teachers to come and help them.

Catholic board teachers took a total of 1,449 sick days in December, up from 1,218 the previous year. In March, they took 2,454 compared to 2,289 in March 2021.

OECTA Waterloo was informed last week that school board consultants have been reassigned to schools to help address staffing shortages. St. Teresa of Calcutta Catholic Elementary School in Cambridge was due to close for two days due to a shortage of staff.

Etmanski criticized the dropping of mask mandates, which he said disproportionately affected the number of infections among staff and students.

“I think the government made a huge mistake in taking away the mask mandates and the things that kept kids safe in schools,” Etmanski says. “Schools are vulnerable places.

Jeff Pelich, President of ETFO (Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario) – Waterloo Region Chapter, agrees that the lack of a mask mandate hurts everyone.

“We need to have candid discussions about masking because we’ve seen a bigger spike in infections since March Break when mask mandates were dropped,” Pelich says. “The absences we’re seeing across the system are huge, more than we’ve ever seen.”

Pelich notes that staffing shortages disproportionately affect special education and specialty programs, as these teachers and educational assistants are rerouted to classrooms with absent teachers.

He says that while that hasn’t happened yet, the Waterloo Region District School Board must now determine whether schools and classrooms will need to be closed for multiple days due to shortages.

“I think there needs to be more discussion about what some of the safety protocols going out of COVID will look like so it’s not just all or nothing.”

School Bus Cancellations

The pandemic is also affecting staffing levels for school bus drivers. Last Wednesday morning, 10 routes across the region were canceled, affecting two dozen schools.

Waterloo Region School Transportation Services is listing affected schools on his website.

The story behind the story: After noticing a local Cambridge school closed for two days due to staff shortages, journalist Genelle Levy decided to explore the issue of staff shortages due to COVID-19 infections across all Waterloo Region School Boards.

— With files from the Record

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