Yukon schools continue to struggle with shortage of teachers-on-call, emails show

The Department of Education building in Whitehorse. (Yukon Department of Education)

Yukon schools continue to grapple with a shortage of teachers-on-call — a situation that was particularly dire at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, according to emails between principals and education department officials.

Teachers-on-call are the Yukon version of substitute teachers, covering teacher absences, but as their name suggests, work on a standby basis. The shortage has forced principals to get creative in order to make sure classes are still taught.

At F.H. Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse, for example, only approximately 40 per cent of teacher absences were covered during the first four weeks of school, with other staff, including educational assistants, filling in the gaps.

One week, the coverage dropped to only 32 per cent.

“I think you will find this data as troubling as we do,” principal Ruth Burridge wrote to education department staff on Sept. 18.

The same week, the Holy Family School Council wrote to education officials, including Minister Jeanie McLean and deputy minister Mary Cameron, to request their “urgent attention and action to address a chronic Teachers on Call (TOC) shortage.”

“Our school has been operating on a deficit since the beginning of the school year with absences, and this is unacceptable,” the email reads. “Our administration is needing support which they are not receiving despite requests.”

The emails were among dozens obtained by CBC News via an access-to-information request, and offer a view into what Yukon Association of Education Professionals president Ted Hupé said has become a “repeat problem.”

“Every morning, the principals are triaging their situation … as to how they’re going to cover the classes and the students that they have,” he said in an interview, adding September was exceptionally bad.

“We were in a critical situation where we just didn’t have enough bodies.”

Ted Hupé, pictured here in September 2020, is president of the Yukon Association of Education Professionals. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Linda Lamers, a superintendent with the Department of Education, told CBC News she hadn’t heard from principals that this school year has been worse than others, but said the department was “actively recruiting on a daily basis.”

“We are really actively working alongside our school communities, working alongside our community partners, working with the union to get creative on really acknowledging that this is an issue right now,” she said. “And we’re doing everything we can to find recruitment and working on retaining people in the education system.”

Data provided by the department showed that as of Dec. 19, there were 270 registered teachers-on-call in the Yukon, up from 259 earlier in the month. Twenty applications were also pending.

‘We haven’t had TOCs in years’
Getting coverage for absences, however, is more than just a raw numbers game, according to Hupé and the emails.

“When the department says, ‘Oh, but we have 200 [teachers-on-call] on our list,’ that is true,” Hupé said.

“But how many of those 200 are available on that Monday morning or that Tuesday morning or that Wednesday morning?”

Hupé said the number of teachers-on-call actually available on any given day is closer to 40 or 50. He said that isn’t enough when there are more than 30 schools in the territory and several staff members are likely to be absent at each due to illness or other circumstances.

A list of concerns from principals collected by the Association of Yukon School Administrators and emailed to the education department in September echo that.

“We have many days with eight people away and only one to two [teachers-on-call] … Cold and flu season has hardly begun and we are short every single day already,” one unnamed principal wrote.

“I have no TOCs,” wrote another. “We haven’t had TOCs in years… I have even combined classes for a day to have enough coverage which means ‘normal learning’ doesn’t really happen.”

“Each morning I dread the first 30 to 40 minutes as I try to figure out how we will organize the staff to cover those who are ill or away for appointments / in-servicing,” wrote a third. “Last week, I had to cover a classroom and used five different people throughout the day to do so. It was a crazy plan that actually worked well, but REALLY?!?!?”

A principal in a “small community” wrote that the school only has one teacher-on-call available, who also works as the school janitor in the evening.

Education department spokesperson Michael Edwards wrote in an email that the department “has no official data at this time” on how many school staff absences aren’t filled by teachers-on-call.

‘People in schools are run ragged’
Besides putting stress on principals, Hupé said the situation is taking a toll on students. Without teachers-on-call, educational assistants, learning assistance teachers, counsellors and other specialized teachers are called to fill in, taking them away from their regular roles.

“Vulnerable kids are not getting services — they’re not getting special [education], they’re not getting the small group, one-to-one training or instruction,” he said.

It’s also impacting permanent and full-time school staff.

“The ones who are healthy … are carrying the ones who aren’t,” Hupé said. “And then it creates the guilt of the ones who are sick — it’s like, ‘Oh geez, I’m so sorry I got sick yesterday or I was sick last week,’ because it’s their colleagues that have to cover.”

In the emails, several principals wrote that they were worried about staff wellbeing. A number, including for the Yukon’s French schools, also said they’ve been unable to give their teachers professional development opportunities or allow them to go on trips because there’s no one available to cover.

“Operationally it is difficult to continue supporting quality programming (especially sports and experiential activities) when there is not enough coverage,” one unnamed principal wrote. “It is also stressful knowing that asking too much of staff to cover internally will lead to burn out.”

“People in schools are run ragged,” another said.

Hupé and principals, in the emails, suggested several changes that could improve the situation in the Yukon — chief among them, increasing pay and benefits, not requiring teachers-on-call to reapply every year and improving internal systems so principals can see how many teachers-on-call are available on a day-to-day basis.

Hupé and several principals also suggested that the Yukon move to a substitute teacher model for some if not all schools, where teachers are hired on a full-time basis specifically for the purpose of filling in absences.

“Right now it’s obvious that the auxiliary on-call model is not working for everybody,” Hupé said.

Asked about those suggestions, Lamers, the superintendent, said the flexibility of the on-call model was a draw for many teachers-on-call.

However, she also said the education department was “looking at all sorts of different options for what’s possible” to improve the situation.

“[Teachers-on-call] are a valued part of our school system, and working alongside the union, working alongside our communities and working alongside our administrators is fundamental to moving through this challenge,” she said.

Both Lamers and Hupé said they expect teachers-on-call to be a key topic when the government and educators’ union begin negotiations on a new collective agreement this year.

Related stories from around the North :

Jackie Hong, CBC News

Jackie Hong is a reporter for CBC North in Whitehorse. She was previously the courts and crime reporter at the Yukon News and, before moving North in 2017, was a reporter at the Toronto Star where she covered everything from murder trials to escaped capybaras.

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