For two years, Nahid Mawji has been dealing with the uncertainty of being an occasional teacher.
Now, with a new school year set to begin amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s again expecting the constant precarity that comes with backfilling permanent staff at different schools, plus the new risks associated with the work.
“I’m putting myself at risk. I’m putting our students at risk,” he said. “Of course I’m taking precautions, but this pandemic is unpredictable.”
Multiple Ontario occasional teachers told CBC News they’re concerned about fuelling transmission of the virus if they’re asked to work in different classrooms and buildings.
In Mawji’s case, he’s particularly worried about teachers carrying the virus without symptoms.
“You’re going school to school to school, not knowing you have it, and next thing you know another spike arises,” said the Mississauga, Ont., resident, who teaches in the Peel District School Board at the high school level.
Another Peel Region occasional high school teacher, who CBC News is not identifying over concerns about the precarious nature of his work, said he has family members with diabetes and is “definitely worried” about bringing the virus home to them.
That fear is coupled with the financial challenges of these roles, which don’t come with reliable income. For most occasional teachers — also known as supply teachers by their students — he said every shift counts.
“They have an impossible choice to make: Do they want to not eat and pay rent, or do they want to risk their health?”
Province aims to create ‘safest environment’
The role played by occasional teachers is just one piece of the province’s school system, which is gearing up for students to return to class in September amid ongoing debate over how to do so safely.
Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, believes those teachers in particular have “legitimate” concerns based on the nature of their work.
Being exposed to more people could increase their risk of getting COVID-19, Banerji said. She likened it to health-care workers moving between long-term care facilities, which were hot spots for coronavirus cases and deaths throughout Ontario.
“In the middle of a pandemic, we really shouldn’t have people moving from institution to institution,” she warned.
When asked by CBC News if the province is planning to mitigate the concerns of occasional teachers specifically, Premier Doug Ford didn’t directly address their particular role in the school system.
“With the teachers, we’re going to create the safest environment we can create,” he said on Tuesday.
A spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board — the largest board in Canada — said it’s their understanding that discussions are happening provincially around how to backfill permanent staff.
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“Included in those discussions is the manner in which absent staff are replaced, protocols for replacement staff, number of sites that one can work at, etc,” spokesperson Marcy McMillan said in a statement. “Once outcomes for those discussions are known, TDSB staff will meet with local unions to discuss the implementation of any guidance/direction that comes.”
In a statement, Peel District School Board spokesperson Carla Pereira said the reopening of schools is expected to place higher demands on occasional employee pools — and there is concern that for some employee groups, there will be shortages of available staff.
“In regard to concerns about exposure, it is our understanding that there has been no determination, across the province, that occasional teachers who interact with multiple cohorts in different schools face any more risk than if they teach multiple cohorts in one school,” she said.
“As an enhanced health and safety measure, the Peel District School Board will follow the recommendations of its local health unit and employees will be provided with any required personal protective equipment.”
Supply teachers ‘vulnerable’
Paul Bocking, vice-president and chief negotiator of the occasional teachers bargaining unit with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation — which represents high school supply teachers with the TDSB — wants action from the board and province, saying supply teachers are in a “vulnerable position” from both a health and a financial standpoint.
Not only is their work often sporadic and temporary, but occasional roles also don’t typically have access to paid sick days, he noted.
Bocking said the union is pushing for a system where every school has a group of supply teachers assigned to them who would backfill for the permanent staff on a regular basis, ensuring occasional teachers aren’t moving between buildings.
Bocking himself said he has a “bunch” of different employers within the school system, and teaches courses at the university level as well — an experience he said is typical.
“There’s the health and safety element of this, and for the job security element, it’s important to have a hiring process for these kinds of jobs so they’re tied to certain schools,” he said.
Banerji warned that with the school year just weeks away, the boards and province are “running out of time” and should consider delaying students’ return.
“We must make this better and safer for everyone,” she said. “The cost of prevention is better than the cost of an outbreak.”