As school boards mark Mental Health Week from May 2 to 8, educators are facing high levels of stress amid ongoing staff shortages and no clear path to solving them.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association says even as the province moves toward an endemic phase of COVID-19, the pandemic is still affecting schools, creating high absence rates and increasing stress for staff and students.
“There are serious sub and teacher shortages in multiple jurisdictions across the province,” said ATA president Jason Schilling.
“The pandemic is still with us, teachers are becoming sick, schools are not able to get the subs they need, so everyone is scrambling.
“That is adding to stress levels, and it’s impacting learning in the classroom.”
Schilling noted that since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when more than 20,000 educational assistants and support staff were laid off, teachers and other school staff have continued to face double duty through each pandemic wave.
“We know that many of those positions were never filled again even after students returned to class,” he said.
This week, the Calgary Board of Education admitted that April has seen a spike in student and staff absences, after a letter went home to families at Colonel Irvine School saying administrators could not find enough staff to fill teacher shortages.
“Each day we have to decide if class will run, until we know the staff we have each day, and we understand this is not ideal and can be stressful for the students,” the letter said.
Teachers have also been covering other classes during prep periods, the letter states, with shortages the worst ever in the past two years.
Brandi Rai, president of the Alberta School Councils Association, said parents representing school councils at last week’s ASCA annual conference said teachers and students continue to be under strain as a result of staff shortages.
“We heard also from our Calgary parents that very often their child’s elementary school will give them notice late one afternoon that a class is moving to online learning the very next day because of a staff shortage.
“So parents are scrambling to deal with that.
“But at the same time, teachers still in the school are also dealing with the huge mental strain of absences.”
The CBE has said it continues to build its roster of substitutes, but Tuesday there were 1,040 school-based absences and only 825 were filled with subs or casual staff.
CBE added that while teaching has been tough during the pandemic, the board is doing all it can to support staff.
“Teaching can be a demanding job at any time, let alone during the trying times of the pandemic years,” said CBE spokesman Bryan Weismiller.
“While CBE teachers continue to do extraordinary things to rise to the challenge, we recognize that work-related stress is a real issue that needs to be managed with care.”
The CBE said it offers several
resources to support employee mental health, including crisis support through an employee assistance program, pulse surveys to gauge stress and paid leave for teachers struggling with mental health.
The CBE is marking Mental Health Week with a notice to families on its website linking to a variety of tools for families and students.
The Calgary Catholic School District said it, too, is marking Mental Health Week in an increased effort to work more closely with families to support students.
“Our students have experienced increasing challenges, including the transition from online to in-person learning and back,” said CCSD spokeswoman Felicia Zuniga.
“In response, our teachers continue to participate in training that supports student mental health and well-being.”
Catholic students and families have access to district resources that include outreach programs, mental health counsellors and school wellness workers. Zuniga added that a new mental health and wellness team was created last fall to offer parent sessions to help families increase awareness around mental health and know how to better access supports.