Two unions representing teachers in Waterloo Region are calling on the school boards to re-introduce mask mandates to help mitigate absences among teachers and students.
“We were hoping that after March Break that the COVID numbers would go down and that the rates of absence would go down as well, because we have the lifting of some of the isolation protocols. But unfortunately that also coincided with the lifting of the mask mandate,” said Jeff Pelich, president of the Waterloo chapter of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
“In our classrooms we have quite a lot of students in small rooms, 30 students for six hours a day and it’s no surprise that…absence rates within our buildings has increased and it directly coincides with the lifting of that mask mandate,” he said.
Pelich said the current rate of teacher absences is unlike anything they have ever seen before.
“We would like to see at least on a temporary basis a return to a more sound approach to masking, a more strict approach to say ‘yeah, we should put those masks back on when they’re in the classroom to keep everyone safe,’” he said.
The provincial government keeps a running list of schools that have reported combined student and staff absenteeism levels, although it does not differentiate between COVID and non-COVID related. As of April 26 absences listed in Woolwich by percentage include Conestogo Public School (8.8), Breslau PS (7.2), Floradale (15.6), John Mahood (11.3) Riverside (16.3) and St. Jacobs OS. In Wellesley, the public school has a rate of 11.5 per cent while St. Clement Catholic Elementary School has 9.6 per cent of students and staff absent.
The Waterloo Region District School Board was unable to provide numbers on how the current level of absences compare to normal levels, however they did acknowledge there has been an uptick.
“As COVID-19 cases rise across the province, in the past weeks, we have seen an increase in absenteeism in our schools. As we have done for more than two years, we continue to shift and make adjustments accordingly,” said communications officer Estefanía Brandenstein.
Patrick Etmanski, president of the Waterloo Catholic Teachers Association, said they have asked their school board to show stronger support for masks.
“We’ve asked them to reinstitute the mask mandate. They told us that they can’t do that; they’re following public health guidelines. So having them write a letter, having them put some pressure back on the government to reinstate that mask mandate, I think is the smart thing to do,” he said, acknowledging the challenges.
“It’s not easy to go backwards on this and suddenly ask families, and kids to start wearing their masks again, but with the number of absences I don’t see any other way out of this at this point,” he explained.
“WCDSB is following the direction of the chief medical officer of health and Region of Waterloo Public Health, and the practice of most boards across the province. The board’s guiding principle throughout the pandemic has been to follow the expert advice of health officials. School staff are not public health experts,” said chief managing officer John Shewchuck via email.
While the public school board provides daily COVID-19 updates the Catholic school board has chosen not to do so.
“In the government’s updated “Interim Guidance for Schools and Child Care: Omicron Surge” there is no further expectation regarding notification of cases or dismissal of cohorts. There is a general presumption or understanding that most if not all schools will have some presence of COVID,” Shewchuk said.
According to Shewchuk they are experiencing the highest level of absences since the pandemic began.
Pelich noted that when a teacher is absent there may not be an occasional teacher available to fill in.
“When they go unfilled, we call them fail to fills so when there’s no one at the start of the day to pick up that position, the principal then has to figure out how they’re going to fill those positions for the day,” Pelich explained.
That leads to students having multiple teachers in a day that aren’t prepared, leading to a lower quality education, he suggested.
While not addressing that union’s claims, Brandenstein said the school board is “doing everything possible within each school to ensure the safety of students and support the continuity of learning.”
Etmanski explained that a similar situation is happening in Waterloo Catholic District School Board, with the board turning to uncertified individuals to act as a “classroom supervisor.”
“When we have somebody in front of the classroom, who’s not a trained teacher delivering that curriculum it is a bit of a problem,” he said.
Shewchuk said the Catholic board has always used uncertified teachers on an emergency basis, however he did acknowledge that their use is higher than it was pre-pandemic.
“Uncertified teachers come from a variety of backgrounds, many are university students, and some teach in post-secondary institutions,” he said.
Pelich did acknowledge the letter the public school board wrote on March 14 to Ontario’s chief medical officer of health and education minister asking for a two-week extension on the mask mandate, however that request was denied.
“As the board didn’t get approval, we continue to encourage staff and students to wear a mask but also to be kind to those who choose not to wear,” said Brandenstein.