Teachers, union decry working conditions and a lack of substitutes

Teachers, their union and Education Department officials agree the ongoing pandemic and an early flu season have made it hard for Nova Scotia public schools to remain adequately staffed this year.

The two sides haven’t provided absenteeism figures, however, and paint wildly different pictures of how schools are faring as a result.

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Ryan Lutes, testifying before the legislature’s standing committee on human resources in Halifax on Tuesday, called it a “crisis.”

“This is not a return to normal,” Lutes told the all-party committee. “Too often teachers are being asked to give up their already inadequate prep time due to a chronic shortage of qualified substitute teachers.”

“As a result, teachers are finding it harder and harder to develop those rich learning experiences that leave a lasting impact on our kids.”

Megan Neaves, a Grade 8-9 teacher at Astral Drive Junior High School in Cole Harbor, echoed that sentiment.

‘Teachers are burned out’

“Teachers are burned out,” said Neaves. “Staff shortages mean that teachers are forced to cover for absent colleagues during their prep time and children end up losing the resources that were created to help them succeed due to the shortage of [substitute teachers].”

“Today, in addition to delivering quality lessons, we are planning for the success of students living with autism, Down Syndrome, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, ADHD, behavioral issues, etcetera.”

Paul Lenarczyk, a substitute teacher, asked MLAs to imagine teachers as pilots, as an analogy to drive home the point that teachers are expected to do much more today than in the past decades.

Ryan Lutes is president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

“So in the 1970s, teachers were flying planes but they were very old planes,” he told the committee. “Teachers today are designers of planes, builders and pilots. We’re also the ground crew, the ticket agents, flight attendants. Passengers have ever greater needs … and the plane is on fire.”

Lenarczyk said the current environment would not help attempts by the province to recruit more substitute teachers to the pool of roughly 2,600 in the province. The public school system has about 10,000 teachers.

“The amount of work that teachers have to do discourages other people from joining the profession,” he said. “When there are fewer people joining the profession, then the cycle repeats itself because there are not enough people in the system.”

Children paying the price, says union president

Lutes said the children who are most in need of extra help at school are paying the price.

“One of the concerns we’re hearing a lot from our learning center teachers is that because of shortages in EPAs [education program assistants] or EAs [educational assistants]they’re not doing their learning center teaching work,” said Lutes. “They’re being EAs for the day, they’re being EPAs for the day.

“What’s really weighing heavily on their heart is that schools are not able to support our most vulnerable students because teachers are being pulled in so many directions.”

Megan Neaves, right, and Paul Lenarczyk are teachers who attended the committee meeting in Halifax. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Elwin LeRoux, Nova Scotia’s associate deputy minister of Education, tried to sound reassuring.

“I can assure everyone today there is a teacher in every classroom,” LeRoux told the committee. “So our efforts to date have assured that learning is happening.”

“And thanks to the quality of the staff that we have, I would say high quality learning is happening.”

LeRoux and officials in his department said the shortage of teachers was Canada-wide, but that the regional centers for education across the province were actively seeking substitute teachers.

They were also trying to determine why many in the current pool of substitutes were reluctant to take on more work or only wanted to work certain times of the year.

The teachers urged the province to increase the salaries of substitute teachers to make the job more attractive.

Teachers collective agreement expires this summer

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union said given the real situation facing schools, the Houston government should do what it did for early childhood educators in the child-care sector, and not wait for contract talks to bring them in.

The current collective agreement for teachers expires this summer.

But Leroux threw cold water at that suggestion, speaking to reporters after the meeting.

Elwin LeRoux is Nova Scotia’s associate deputy minister of Education and Early Childhood Development. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

“Wages are considered within the Teachers Provincial Agreement,” he said. “It would be my understanding that that would be brought through bargaining to see a change.”

Retired Nova Scotia teachers are allowed to work as a substitute for up to 99.5 days in this school year without impact to their retirement. The Nova Scotia government extended that limit by 30 days at the beginning of this school year as one measure to ensure an adequate supply of subs.