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‘Troublesome’ on-call teacher shortage in Surrey

Principals and librarians can be called in when sick days can’t be filled by on-call teachers

The Surrey school district is struggling to replace its pool of on-call teachers as many switched to full-time positions this year.

Last Wednesday, Superintendent Jordan Tinney told the Surrey Board of Education the district’s “Fail to Fill” rate for TTOCs (Teachers Teaching on Call) is high, calling the issue a “significant challenge.”

“Administration is working with human resources to address the issue to the extent possible, given the shortage of qualified teachers available,” Tinney noted.

Surrey’s large pool of TTOCs was drained as a result of the Nov. 10, 2016 Supreme Court ruling in favour of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. It ruled to restore contract language and class-size and class-composition deleted in 2002. In Surrey, this meant 300 new full-time teachers had to be hired, and many TTOCs moved into full-time positions.

See more: Surrey must create 168 new classrooms, hire 300 teachers by September

District spokeman Doug Strachan said there have been “failures to fill” in Surrey this school year, which means an on-call teacher cannot be found when a teacher is off sick.

“The worst day was Nov. 2, the day before the instructional day, and we had 45 failures to fill,” in classrooms, said Strachan. “To put that into context, we have more than 5,200 classrooms in the district.”

That number could rise to 70 or more during flu season, added Strachan.

Currently, the district has 700 to 750 on-call teachers and while there is no magic number to reach, Strachan said “the goal is to get enough so we never have a failure to fill.”

Surrey still has ads out looking for more TTOCs, and human resources staff are even out at universities, interviewing and inviting graduates.

See also: ‘Schools need to be built now,’ says Surrey parent group

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Board of Education chair Shawn Wilson said the situation is “troublesome.”

“So you’ve taken one camp of TTOCs and now many of them are full-time people,” Wilson said. “You can’t just replace them overnight. We lost some and gained some but overall it’s a struggle as we continue to try to meet the demand.

“It’s not just Surrey,” he added. “It’s all of the Lower Mainland and all of the province really that are struggling.”

So, what happens when there are no on-call teachers available to cover a sick day?

“A principal or a vice-principal would take that class, or they might, in some cases, take learning support teachers or teacher librarians,” Wilson explained.

While each school has its own plan on how to fill those vacancies, the district has confirmed it can include such staff members as Wilson indicated.

“The classroom teacher, the enrolling position is paramount,” Wilson said. “There’s a stress in the system.”

In an emailed statement to the Now-Leader, Surrey Teachers’ Association President Gioia Breda said she’s surprised it’s taken the district so long to talk about the shortage “because it has been apparent to the union since the start of the school year.”

“One of the reasons for the shortage of Teachers Teaching on Call (TTOCs) is that TTOCs are still routinely been called to cover classes where there is no full-time teacher in the position, which means that there are far fewer TTOCs left to be able to replace teachers who are sick on any given day,” said Breda.

Administrators covering classes is a “very new phenomenon in Surrey,” according to Breda, and based on information from teachers, this year they are still rarely, if ever, the first person in a school to cover a failure to fill.

“For years in Surrey, Learning Support Teachers have routinely been required to cover classes when a TTOC is not available,” she said. “Learning Support Teachers were primarily used because there’s no requirement for the district to pay back that learning support time to students, making it a cheaper way to cover unfilled absences.”

“That is because when teacher librarians, music teachers, or French teachers are pulled to cover classes, that time needs to be returned because they account for elementary classroom teachers’ preparatory time (i.e. the classroom teacher takes their prep when their class is doing music, French, or in the library), so there is a mechanism in place to require having that time ‘paid back.’ Therefore, routinely pulling Learning Support Teachers means that the district has been saving money on the backs of some of our most vulnerable students.”

Breda noted the district has 66 fewer LSTs this year, despite almost 1,200 more students than last year.

“For years the Surrey Teachers’ Association has urged teachers to push against the practice of relying mostly on Learning Support Teachers for coverage and to create a more equitable way at individual school sites to address TTOC absences,” said Breda. “We are pleased that so many schools are now getting some support from administration to make a more equitable process possible, so the burden of failure to fills is not borne just by LST teachers and their students. It’s not only teachers, of course, who face challenges when there are failure to fills. Every time there is a TTOC absence, there is a disruption of service to students. Students are routinely missing out on the daily interventions that they need for learning support (e.g. a reading program designed to be done by students every day), or are missing out on their musical or French instruction or losing their opportunity to work with the school librarian.”

District spokesman Strachan said it advises principals covering classes when an on-call teacher isn’t available to “first and foremost, minimize the impact on all students, including those with special needs. The district recommends, and the practice and priority in our schools, is an equitable approach.”

Strachan said each school has its own circumstance and principals work with staff to develop a plan to manage classrooms.

“Principals and staff employ ‘rotation,’ that is, non-enrolling teachers, administrators (principals and vice principals) and sometimes teachers on prep time will turns filling-in when needed. It is not practical, nor equitable—for teachers or for students—for any one teacher or category of teacher to be deployed more than others, so that approach isn’t taken.”

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