Flu season and teacher shortage could create havoc

Richmond School District faces a teacher shortage

The Richmond School District is facing a serious shortage of substitute teachers and the problem will only be amplified as cold and flu season approaches, said board chair Debbie Tablotney.

“It’s going to be a concern. We’ve been resourcing retired teachers, but we are still going to be short,” said Tablotney Tuesday.

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In Richmond, it appeared to take longer than expected to fill all the regular teacher positions. Prior to the school year starting, Tablotney said all classrooms would be ready to go. But many classrooms went well into September without a teacher. 

“There are still some classes that are still being set for teachers,” said Tablotney.

She added the district is also still looking to fill about 25 full-time special needs and English Language Learner (ELL) positions. Until that is done, the district is not meeting the revamped requirements of classroom composition as set out by the Supreme Court of Canada last November. 

On Monday the B.C. Teachers’ Federation said it is no surprise there is a teacher shortage in B.C. as they receive the second lowest entry-level pay in Canada, after Quebec, which doesn’t have as many requirements for first-year teachers.

Factor in housing costs, and you have a serious labour shortage, said Glen Hansman, BCTF president.

“It makes it tough to convince the necessary number of candidates to come to B.C. when starting salaries are so low; there are a very limited number of places to rent, and (the) cost of living is so high.”

Across the province, said Hansman, “It’s only a matter of days before the cold and flu season hits our schools. When that happens, the critical shortage of on-call teachers will lead to significant disruptions to schools and students. We are already seeing cases of unfilled teacher vacancies in schools on a daily basis. And in some extreme cases, some students still don’t have their permanent teacher.”

Kim Nowitsky, member of the parent-led education advocacy group Richmond Schools Stand United, said parents have, for the most part, been sympathetic to the district’s plight.

“It’s not their fault,” she said.

“You can hardly blame teachers for leaving Richmond,” said Nowitsky, whose children’s school does not have a librarian, hence the students have not been able to access books for an entire month.

Hansman has proposed the provincial government re-open its most recent contract, which was signed in 2014 after a long labour dispute with the Liberal government.

“From our point of view, possible solutions include incentives like student loan forgiveness, professional supports, and meaningful assistance with housing and moving expenses. B.C. must also confront the high cost of living and the low wages starting teachers receive in our province,” he said.

At University of B.C., a bachelor’s degree and education degree, required to teach, will cost about $48,000 in tuition and fees alone, over five years. A first year teacher in Richmond earns about $49,000. 

Tablotney also said she’s hearing housing issues are a major factor hampering the district’s hiring process.

The hiring blitz this year stems from the November court ruling. Then, the court determined the BC Liberal government imposed illegal legislation in 2002 that stripped the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) of its right to bargain for smaller classes and composition (adequate level of special needs teachers). The ruling reversed the growing trend of larger class sizes, which had saved the province billions of dollars at the expense of children’s education, Nowitsky has noted. 

Nowitsky said Richmond parents are looking forward to what the NDP government plans to do in Richmond, particularly with the 24 remaining elementary schools that need seismic upgrade funding.

Tablotney said the board met with Education Minister Rob Fleming last week to discuss that matter. 

“He understands our position and dilemma,” said Tablotney.

The NDP will table a new budget in February.

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