As in-person learning returns Monday, union leaders fear staffing shortages

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Government-sent N95 masks have arrived for teachers and staff in the Windsor-Essex region, but it’s unclear how many of those educators are healthy enough to wear them and lead classrooms in person from Monday.


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Local union representatives are raising concerns about looming staffing shortages amid news from the Ontario government that K-12 students will return to school next week.

Rumors of a return after two weeks of online learning emerged Monday night, but certainty about the plan only came on Wednesday when Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health , outlined the steps for a safe return on January 17 in the wake of the surge in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant.

Lecce said all students and staff in elementary schools and child care settings will receive two rapid antigen tests with more to arrive in the coming weeks for all high school students. He also announced the launch of vaccination clinics in schools to increase the number of vaccinated children ages 5 to 11, and pointed to stricter screening protocols as measures to mitigate viral spread.


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But Mario Spagnuolo, Greater Essex local president with the Ontario Federation of Elementary Teachers, said the public must be prepared for “significant” challenges for school staff.

Mario Spagnuolo, president of the Greater Essex Federation of Primary Teachers of Ontario, in front of the ETFO offices in Tecumseh on December 15, 2021.
Mario Spagnuolo, president of the Greater Essex Federation of Primary Teachers of Ontario, in front of the ETFO offices in Tecumseh on December 15, 2021. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

“Right now, staff who are isolating (due to COVID-19) can still teach online but can’t go to school. That’s going to wreak havoc on our school system. Even before the December break, there were multiple occasions where support staff were not replaced at all. Those are the people who take care of our most vulnerable students in special education. And we are starting to see a shortage of occasional teachers.”

Erin Roy, local district president of the Ontario Federation of Secondary School Teachers, is also concerned about staffing levels.


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“It’s going to get tough,” he said. “I am concerned about the shortage of staff. I know some people with symptoms and we don’t get priority for testing. Come Monday, if I’m a director and 30 percent of my staff are gone, I’m wondering ‘what’s the plan?’ “

Lecce announced a deal that would allow retired teachers to be re-employed for longer periods of time, saying “that will provide access to thousands of qualified teacher educators who will keep schools open and safe.”

However, spokesmen for the area’s two largest boards say there are few retirees registered to work as occasional teachers.

This really doesn’t have much of an impact on us,” said Stephen Fields of the Windsor-Essex Catholic District school board. “We only have a handful of retired teachers on our occasional roster available to fill in for absences, and so far, we haven’t received any more.”


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The public board’s Scott Scantlebury described the number of retirees on his list as “insignificant,” adding that “we don’t have any retired teachers who have returned under the new government provisions.”

Even the Ontario Federation of Teachers, the group that negotiated the long-term work agreement with the province, was skeptical of its impact, saying it “doesn’t expect many retirees to be interested in working in the current environment.”

Lecce also announced Wednesday that boards could use first- and second-year university teaching candidates to address staffing shortages.

Shown here nearly a year ago, on February 8, 2021, students at St. John Vianney Catholic Elementary School make their way to school buses after their first day back at school.
Shown here nearly a year ago, on February 8, 2021, students at St. John Vianney Catholic Elementary School make their way to school buses after their first day back at school. Photo by Nick Brancaccio /Windsor Star

Alicia Higgison, president of the public board of trustees, said the board knows that students need to be in school. “But I anticipate that the next few weeks will be quite difficult between the increase in cases that lead to staff and students being absent.”


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A primary school teacher on the public board had a “jump in her step” on Tuesday at the news that she and her colleagues would return to school, but her enthusiasm was tempered by safety concerns.

“For myself and colleagues I have spoken to, we are happy and agree that the classroom is the best place for children to learn, but the big question remains of ‘What has changed to make it better? Are you sure?’” Grade asked. 1 teacher who asked to remain anonymous.

She said younger students struggle to keep ill-fitting masks on their noses. He would like to make immunizations mandatory for all students and staff.

The OSSTF’s Roy said emotions among its members “range from wanting to come back no matter what, to being very concerned about the spread of the Omicron variant.”


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She described Monday’s imminent return as “a great experiment. We’ll see what happens.”

Lecce on Wednesday described providing rapid tests to all primary school students “as a layer of protection that we didn’t have” and that it “will help empower parents.”

Dr. Moore noted that it was “crucial” for children to return to in-person learning for their mental health and well-being, but warned that “the risk of transmission can never be eliminated.”

Instead of notifying parents when a student in their child’s class has tested positive, the government now focuses on general absenteeism. When a school reaches an overall absenteeism rate of 30 percent for staff and students, the principal will notify the local health unit and parents.

“When it comes to gathering information, it seems like we’re putting more into our health unit,” Higgison said. “It seems to be downloading locally a lot and that frustrates me.”

Students will return to schools next week to find extracurricular activities and high-contact sports on pause.

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