Original Published on Aug 02, 2022 at 20:53

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A child has immediately burst into tears when Holly Harris walked into their classroom — on more than one occasion over the last two school years.

“Of course, you don’t take it personally,” said the substitute teacher, as she recalled what it has been like to fill-in for ill and absent educators throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “The kids just couldn’t cope with any more change in their lives.”

Harris, 61, hosted an hour-long lecture Thursday titled Classroom Confidential at Winnipeg’s Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre.

Throughout her presentation, she spoke about addressing high levels of anxiety among students of all levels as they adapted to changing public health orders and her respect for all of the full-time employees in the K-12 system.

The intimate talk was part of the Lanny Remis Speakers’ Forum, a series featuring experts on a wide range of timely subjects, with this year’s lineup addressing everything from pandemic education to the war in Ukraine. The forum, whose namesake was a well-known businessman and leader in Winnipeg’s Jewish community, resumed in 2022, after a two-year hiatus due to safety concerns.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has long raised concerns about a severe shortage of certified substitute teachers, particularly in northern and rural communities that count on retired educators to re-enter classrooms.

The issue worsened in the fall of 2020, when front-line educators were directed to stay home if they tested positive for COVID-19 or had any symptoms. At the same time, the pool of available substitutes shrunk due to retirees limiting their close contacts.

There’s been “a feeding frenzy” for classroom coverage, Harris said, noting she started to consider 15 to 20 job offers on a single day as typical.

The 61-year-old counts herself lucky she has yet to contract the novel coronavirus (to her knowledge), citing the sheer number of schools she has visited and “many, many times, I have filled-in for teachers down with COVID.”

“Did I ever feel scared or nervous? Yes, I probably did — but I felt such a sense of purpose about subbing. I knew kids were struggling and I thought, ‘I’ve got my certificate. What am I doing? I can get out there,’” she said, adding she has been cautious about masking.

The certified educator, who received her teaching degree in 2001, has worked in the arts sector and been self-employed for much of her life. Harris was teaching piano lessons and doing freelance work for several publications, including the Free Press, when the pandemic was declared. On March 13, 2020, she lost virtually all of her income and soon began searching for work.

While she said subbing requires a thick skin, given students often miss their usual teacher and middle schoolers can go out of their way to make trouble for substitutes, Harris said she immediately took to the job after starting in early 2021.

The substitute teacher said she has been in awe of students’ resilience and adaptability to changes — from the creation of “recess zones” to an emphasis on independent study to limit intermingling.

It has also been eye opening to watch educators work at a relentless pace to create lesson plans, mark assignments and communicate with parents, while they keep children safe by promoting measures like “zombie arms,” Harris said.

Early on in the pandemic, dire straits led some metro divisions to consider job applications from non-teachers who simply had post-secondary experience.

There have been times where school administrators, clinicians and other support staff have had to supervise classrooms on behalf of absent teachers. High staff absenteeism rates have also led to temporary e-learning periods.

“This is not a problem that’s simply going to disappear… I don’t see it being fixed unless we seriously look at how (to) encourage more young people, and really a broad-cross section of young people, to pursue teaching as a career,’” said James Bedford, who represents substitutes among the roughly 16,600 public school educators in the province.

The union leader said working conditions, rate of pay, teachers college seats, and job availability must all be considered.

In an effort to address the shortage, MTS and the Retired Teachers’ Association of Manitoba partnered to lobby for both a pay hike and paid sick days for substitutes. Some, but not all school divisions agreed to make changes in response.

In a prepared statement, Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said around $30 million in provincial funding for COVID-19 cost pressures went towards hiring additional teachers, educational assistants and other staff members in 2021-22.

Ewasko noted the province adjusted its limited teaching permit application to streamline the process, worked with education faculties to permit eligible students to substitute outside practicum blocks, and extended a temporary provision to allow retired educators to work without compromising their pension.

This item reprinted with permission from the Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba