• Trevor Greenway

Schools barely beating COVID battle

WQSB calls on retirees, parents to fill in for absent teachers


When Terry Kharyati arrives at school on any given day, he has no idea what he’s walking into.


The Western Quebec School Board (WQSB) human resources director could be missing one teacher – or 14 due to COVID isolation measures – and it’s up to him and principals across the region to keep classes staffed, students safe and schools open.


They’re just barely winning the fight.


“That’s the big issue right now; staff absenteeism is increasing based on COVID isolation rules,” said Kharyati, from his temporary office at Chelsea Elementary School. He pointed out that absentee numbers have been increasing weekly over the past two weeks.


According to the province’s Ministry of Education, more than 2,000 teachers have been absent from Quebec schools since in-person learning resumed on Jan. 17. Part of the problem, says Kharyati, is that because COVID isolation rules are so strict, the board is seeing last-minute absences from teachers who may not even be sick. He said he’s never seen the situation so bad in his 28 years in the school system.


“The absences are not just teachers. It’s support staff, professionals and administration, and a lot of the absences related to COVID could be any number of things,” added Kharyati, also a Chelsea resident. “They could be sick; they could be living with someone who is symptomatic or has COVID; they could have just travelled — any of the situations that require people in Quebec to isolate, we are being impacted by.”


With so many teachers absent, the WQSB is calling on stay-at-home parents, recent retirees and recent grads looking for work to help out in the schools. From supervising classrooms and facilitating learning to professional and administrative work – pretty much every role that, collectively, keeps a school chugging day-to-day is at risk.


And if you don’t have any experience teaching or supervising kids, Kharyati says not to worry – if you’re a good parent, you’ll be a good teacher.


“If you’re balanced and you have common sense, and you have a sense of humour, you're patient, you follow instructions, and you use the right language and the right action as best you can, you can come and be an impact player in a school setting on a temporary basis,” he said.


Kharyati added that the board isn’t taking just anyone to teach your kids, but only, “the best possible person for the job.” The board’s vetting process hasn’t changed, and every applicant will undergo security checks and a thorough review.


The board is turning to parents and retirees because the school shortage is affecting all schools throughout the province, and, as such, supply lists throughout Quebec have taken a significant hit. Chelsea Elementary School principal Andrea Gage said she’s hired close to 25 per cent more substitute teachers this year compared to pre-COVID years.


Chelsea Elementary School is just one of 31 WQSB schools facing a major staffing shortage due to COVID-19 isolation rules. Aden Seaton photo
Chelsea Elementary School is just one of 31 WQSB schools facing a major staffing shortage due to COVID-19 isolation rules. Aden Seaton photo

“In pre-pandemic years, there was an adequate availability of substitute staff to draw from,” Gage told the Low Down. “This year, in addition to the increased demand, we also have a decreased availability as many previous substitute staff have been hired for contracts. Our current pool is primarily retired teachers.”

Wakefield Elementary is experiencing similar issues. Principal Julie Fram-Greig said staffing has always been a constant challenge, even pre-covid, but the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the situation. Fram-Greig noted that the pandemic's effect on students is impossible to ignore.

“We are really starting to see an impact of COVID absences on students’ mental health,” she said. “We are starting to see not only gaps in learning with some students but also in their social development — maybe not quite as independent as they would be, some lagging in social skills with some students, unable to problem-solve in certain situations. It is critical for schools to be open and they can be a safe place to learn and work.”

Fram-Greig isn’t alone in what she sees. SickKids Hospital in Toronto recently released a report that studied the effects of the pandemic — namely the impact of online learning. The study suggests that more than 50 per cent of children aged eight to 12 years old reported “clinically significant depressive symptoms” during the second wave of the pandemic from February to March 2021. The more time students spent online learning, the more symptoms of depression and anxiety they experienced.

Chelsea parent Jessica Valentini knows these stats all too well, but they are more than just numbers to her. Her now seven-year-old daughter started Grade 1 at Chelsea Elementary during the pandemic’s first wave and has never experienced a typical, routine school year with extracurricular activities, clubs and after-school sleepovers. She said she noticed the impact it has had on her daughter.

Jessica Valentini’s seven-year-old daughter does some online schooling earlier this month during the latest province-wide lockdown. The Grade 2 student, like many others, has been struggling with online learning throughout the pandemic. Photo courtesy Jessica Valentini
Jessica Valentini’s seven-year-old daughter does some online schooling earlier this month during the latest province-wide lockdown. The Grade 2 student, like many others, has been struggling with online learning throughout the pandemic. Photo courtesy Jessica Valentini

“Her love of school has diminished a lot because there is just no structure,” said Valentini. “They are in school; they are out of school, their teacher is there, their teacher is not there, so there has just been a lot of instability in her education. She’s never had a regular school year since Kindergarten.”

The six-plus hours of online learning weren’t doing it for Valentini and her family, so she took time off work and began homeschooling her daughter.

“It literally broke my heart to see her struggling like that,” she said. “Putting her in front of a computer for three hours straight, she would have tantrums; she would shut down; [she would become] very lethargic; she would be in bad moods because she was staring at a computer screen for too long; her confidence really went down because she wasn’t able to follow along on the computer.”

Kharyati said he is hoping readers will jump at the opportunity to keep schools open to help students like Valentini’s daughter and the countless others who have already missed out on many of the social aspects that school brings them.

“The expectation of a replacement teacher isn’t to come in and be a great pedagog, necessarily,” added Kharyati. “It’s to come in and explain the task at hand and to keep everybody calm and safe.”

If you’re a recent retiree, a stay-at-home parent or a good person with common sense, apply for a temporary teaching job at the WQSB at wqsb.qc.ca.