B.C. teacher staffing shortages hit special needs students the hardest: unions

Lower Mainland teachers’ unions are questioning the sustainability of the status quo, highlighting a labour shortage in which students with special needs are often affected the most.

There are multiple issues at play, including unfilled absences when educators are unable to work and a lack of staffing altogether.

In some cases, elementary students are dealing with multiple teachers already this year, while at the high school level, there are cases of some teachers openly admitting the subjects they’re teaching are not their area of expertise.

Tanya Kerr, president of the Langley Teachers Association, notes it goes far beyond students not getting the support they need.

“We’ve called back teachers who are unpaid personal leaves, ‘Can you come back to TOC?’ Our district’s actually starting to look at are they going to consider hiring uncertified teachers, which that is something that they had never considered doing before,” she explained.

However, one of the larger issues is education assistants being used essentially as substitute teachers when nobody is available to come in.

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“That targets the most vulnerable students,” Lizanne Foster with the Surrey Teachers Association said, noting this is devastating for those kids and their families.

“There’s elements of cruelty to that. The students that are the most vulnerable in the school that need the most help are the ones that are first to have that help taken away from them.”

Diverting education assistants comes even as EAs face their own staffing shortages — meaning other teachers without the same training are often finding themselves supporting students with a range of needs.

“Now remember, a specialist teacher is specifically there to help our most vulnerable learners. Those kids who struggle with English language learning, who struggle with learning in and of itself, who’ve got social and emotional difficulties, who have medical and health — they don’t replace those teachers. In the best case scenario, after three days they will replace them, and most often they’re not replaced for 20 days or even half a year,” Foster explained.

“Children are essentially saying the same things in their way that education assistants have been saying for the longest time and teachers have been saying for the longest time, which is, our most vulnerable students need to have supports in classrooms and there’s not enough supports for them.”

B.C. working to resolve teacher staffing issues

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside acknowledges the issues can’t be solved immediately.

However, she insists the province is working to fill this labour gap.

“We added teacher seats to the system, we’ve added additional teacher training seats, we’ve revised certification processes so that we can recruit and deployed internationally trained educators more quickly,” she explained, adding the province is working with districts experiencing “high enrollment pressures” to understand their specific needs.

“Some of the work that we’ve already done is around making investments to expand creating more teacher positions in the teaching education programs at the universities.”

Whiteside notes staffing challenges vary across the province. In the Lower Mainland, she admits school districts experience pressures differently.

“We’ve known for some time that we do have pressures with respect to specialty teachers,” she said, adding a taskforce is looking into these challenges.

When it comes to teachers filling in roles they are not necessarily trained to do, Whiteside says these are decisions that are made by the districts themselves, based on their own resources.

But at the ministry level, she says the province is concerned with what the “broad picture is” when it comes to recruitment and retention.

The pandemic highlighted some of the challenges and pressures staff have and continue to face, Whiteside admits. This is another key area the Ministry of Education is focusing on, she adds.

“Recruitment and retention has been a conversation for the last several years. We’ve had a task force, we’re going to continue to have those conversations, continue to work with districts on this issue.”

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