About 30 out of 583 TDSB schools reported classes that shifted to remote asynchronous learning Friday, estimated to be the highest number of classes affected by staff absences in a single day during the pandemic.

The high level of absences is due to a combination of religious holidays as well as existing staffing challenges amid the sixth wave of COVID-19, said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird.

At Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts in Scarborough, nearly a third of classes taken by Grade 12s —11 out of 30 — were shifted to remote learning Friday, Bird confirmed.

Because of staff on leave, students in affected classes have been instructed to work remotely and independently, as there is no teacher to lead the lesson.

As COVID cases continue to spread, many schools in Ontario are struggling to replace teachers on sick leave due to the virus, forcing classes in some cases to shift to remote learning.

This comes after Ontario ended mandatory masking in indoor public spaces, including classrooms, on March 21. Provincial wastewater signals in April estimated a high of around 100,000 new COVID infections a day.

Part of the challenge facing schools is that it has become harder to find supply teachers, according to “fill rates” — the proportion of teaching jobs covered by a substitute. Boards are doing their best to fill spots when supply teachers aren’t available, which includes using other school-based staff, bringing back retired teachers, and reassigning teachers within their school.

Reasons for why supply teachers are not picking up available jobs are unclear, but Bird said it is possible that they may be hesitant to work while COVID cases spike because they are not given sick days.

“Our fill rates have been low recently or lower than they typically would be,” Bird said. “While we don’t have exact reasons, we can assume that COVID plays a significant role in people not wanting to pick up available jobs.”

The extent to which COVID is affecting absences among both staff and students remains unclear. The only provincewide tracking of the situation in schools is a government website, which posts a percentage of student and staff who are currently absent. However, reported absences are not all related to COVID. Schools must notify public health units when absentee rates reach 30 per cent.

Bird said the board expects the staffing situation to quickly improve.

“While staffing challenges are expected to continue, as today was the result of a unique combination of factors, we don’t anticipate the same number of classes to be impacted moving forward.”

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