COVID-19 isolation rules, outbreaks lead to school staff shortages

While Lambton Public Health officials monitor outbreaks in local schools, educators are concerned about staffing. So many teachers are isolating after being exposed to COVID-19 North Lambton Secondary School had to move online this week.

Alex Kurial/Local Journalism Initiative

The Lambton-Kent District School Board is struggling to find teachers to cover classes as dozens of teachers isolated after being exposed to COVID-19.
And the director of education is hoping to hire more substitute teachers to fix the problem.
The issue comes to light after students at North Lambton Secondary School were shifted to online learning Monday. Lambton Public Health declared an outbreak at the school Sunday. The board’s website says 15 students now have tested positive for COVID-19.
In a news release, the board said the school could not be operated safely because so many teachers had to isolate after being exposed to the virus.
Director of Education, John Howitt, says the exposure may not have only been at school. “In some cases due to exposure in the community, in some cases due to exposures at school, and in some cases due to exposures within their family that require them to be self-isolating,” says Howitt.
The board did try to find substitute teachers to fill the gaps, but there simply wasn’t anyone available. All of the substitutes were either isolating or already assigned to other schools.
The problem is twofold, Howitt says. “We are seeing an increased need for the use of vocational teachers and temporary staff in other job categories due to two main things; one, an increase of cases that has required the staff to self-isolate or two, the self-screener tells them that they are not to report to work that day due to a symptom that they may be experiencing.”
Howitt says the school board is attempting to hire more substitute teachers and staff, and also contacting retired members for possible shifts. 
And the union representing high school teachers says substitute teachers face another set of problems during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately occasional teachers are a little more precarious in their work, in that they don’t have access to some of the types of leaves that they would if they were permanent teachers.”
That lack of benefit makes it harder to attract substitutes.
While the board pivoted the school to online learning, Kumpf says that’s not ideal either.
“My OSSTF members are teaching the students that chose face-to-face learning, and they chose that in-person learning for a good reason. That works for them and their individual circumstances or for their family.
“So it makes things a little more challenging because they’re learning in a format they didn’t choose for themselves, unlike someone who selected the virtual school and anticipated to be learning online for extended periods of time,” says Kumpf. 
The sudden switch to online learning is just one of the issues high school teachers face this year, but Kumpf says they’re doing their best.
“They’re working diligently to follow health and safety protocols, and are doing their best to deliver programs in less than ideal pandemic conditions,” says Kumpf.
“There are a lot of additional pieces that are added into a school day that aren’t there outside of a pandemic.”
North Lambton is slated to reopen Monday, but Howitt says people need to be smart with their interactions, recognizing what they do affects an entire school community. “For the five hours that we have students a day, we’re able to put all the protocols in place to help and it’s difficult to accept when the same level of diligence is not going on in the community. And that’s a frustration. And here is an example of where a couple of hundred families are impacted by a breakdown in protocols at some point,” says Howitt.
“I am very concerned about the increase in the number of cases within our community. It’s not about the schools, the schools are a reflection of the cases in the community.”
Howitt says in Forest, three of the cases have been linked while the others “are separate, distinct exposures outside of the school. So it’s not one party that was a super spreader event.
“It is multiple cases of people being in a position where they’re exposed to COVID-19. That is very concerning to me. That is about choice and behaviours, and that can be controlled by following public health advice,” says Howitt.
“I just really hope that people are being vigilant out there. We’re not through this yet. And the variants of concern brings that to another level.”

-The Independent

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