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Toronto school boards struggle to find supply teachers amid rise in absences due to COVID-19

Last Updated Mar 23, 2021 at 6:01 pm EDT

Ontario schools during COVID-19 pandemic. Taylor Wilcox

The COVID-19 situation has gone from bad to worse for some school boards and now, the president of the union representing Toronto Catholic elementary teachers wants to see schools in the City’s hotspots shut down, saying it’s becoming an untenable situation.

Julie Altomare-DiNunzio says if the circumstances surrounding the virus in schools don’t improve, she will call for a return to all virtual learning after the delayed spring break.

“We see that there is this continued spike in the number of cases of schools,” said Altomare-DiNunzio.

“Unfortunately, we will have to consider closing the school to keep people safe.”

In addition to more cases of COVID-19, there is the issue of supply teacher shortages.

RELATED: TDSB planning for full return to in-person learning in the fall

The Toronto Catholic District school board (TCDSB) said measures have been taken on some occasions to “ensure the safety of students and staff” as it strives to broaden its pool of occasional, or supply, teachers.

“Like many boards across the province, the TCDSB continues to bolster its occasional teacher roster but struggles to address challenges associated with increased teacher absences, greater incidences of short-term sick leave, and an unwillingness of available occasional teachers to accept daily jobs during this pandemic,” the board said in a statement Tuesday.

School boards are having to turn to principals, specialty teachers, and even lunchroom supervisors to help cover absences because of a shortage of supply teachers.

Several Ontario teachers’ unions say their members are facing increased rates of stress and burnout during the pandemic, and may also need time off due to illness, isolation requirements, and their responsibilities as parents and caregivers.

They note occasional teachers are reluctant to go into schools at this time because they don’t feel safe from COVID-19, and don’t have access to sick leave and other protections if they are infected.

Altomare-DiNunzio says she’s in contact with her counterparts at the public level where they experience the same concerns.

We’ve been hearing of staffing shortages in Peel Region for a couple of weeks, and there, talks continue between the public and catholic boards and public health about possibly shutting down all schools to in-person learning until mid-April.

Another meeting is scheduled for this week.

In the Dufferin-Peel catholic board, there are 11 schools currently closed.

This comes as Ontario reports 409 new school-related COVID-19 cases.

As of Tuesday, there are 1,906 confirmed school-related cases in the past 14 days. Of that total, 340 are positive staff cases.

There are just under 1,000 schools with at least one positive case and 48 schools remain closed as a result of the pandemic.

With files from the Canadian Press

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