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Managing Ontario schools ‘a perfect storm of stress,’ principals say, with staffing the main challenge

Ninety per cent of Ontario public school principals say staffing public schools adequately is a challenge right now, and many cite an “overwhelming lack of support” from the Ford government getting in the way of them doing their jobs, according to a new survey.

Non-profit education advocacy group People For Education found that among 965 principals from all but one of Ontario’s 72 school boards surveyed, staffing was a challenge for 90 per cent of them during the 2021-22 school year, while 83 per cent reported ensuring adequate physical distancing was their top concern.

But principals said a lack of support from the Ministry of Education was the common thread that binding all of their problems together.

“Principals reported that an overwhelming lack of support on all fronts — administration, funding, safety resources, and communication from the government — has undermined their capacity to do their jobs,” People For Education authors wrote in a report based on survey findings.

Principals told People For Education that even with the new ability to hire student teachers and have retirees return to the system for longer hours than what was previously allowed, they often cannot simply find enough people to adequately supervise children in schools.

“I cannot emphasize how problematic this is for elementary schools, as these students are not old enough to supervise themselves. It is not like in other sectors where others can just compensate by having more patients / clients / customers and it feels busier, ”a principal from southwestern Ontario told report authors.

The inability to adequately staff classrooms spilled over into principals’ second most commonly-identified problem, not being able to physically distance kids in class.

“Fewer staff members can lead to larger class sizes, which, in turn, create physical limitations on the amount of distancing possible,” the report authors wrote.

People For Education Director Annie Kidder told CP24 that many principals told them it feels like nothing was learned from the first school year of the pandemic.

“I think it’s most concerning that principals told us a lot of things a year ago, things that needed to change, and this year the stress and the impact of the pandemic has been even worse.”

The report authors blame the “compounding effects of COVID-19” for some of the access to staffing issue, but also the fact that the Bachelor of Education program was doubled in length to two years and admissions were halved.

They also suggest the Ford government did not adequately fund school boards to hire additional staff in the 2021-22 school year like they did the previous year, citing “The failure of the Ministry of Education to continue to provide substantial funding increases to support staffing needs. for the 2021-22 school year. ”

Grace Lee, spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said Ontario’s funding commitment to schools is historic in scale and properly addresses pandemic-related challenges in schools.

“No other government in Ontario history has invested more in public education, tutoring supports, mental health, special education and staffing supports than this government led under Premier Ford. Our government’s investments have increased each year since 2017-2018, rising to an increase of 9% in 2022-2023, with a historic investment of $ 26.6 billion – the single largest investment in Ontario’s history. “

So far, the Ministry of Education has earmarked 304 million in additional funding for 2022-23 for schools to hire additional temporary staff in schools, but this funding is also meant to pay for enhanced cleaning of classrooms, technology needed for remote learning and implementing a. new de-streamed grade 9 math course.

The survey also found only 43 per cent of principals felt their schools had adequate access to mental health supports, while 37 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed they had adequate access.

The Ministry of Education increased its commitment to mental health funding in schools from $ 80 million to $ 90 million for the 2022-2023 school year.

The report also found principals want to learn of changes to school operations – closures, remote learning or new initiatives – without having to watch it on the news like everyone else.

“If changes affecting schools could be communicated in advance — even if only by a few hours — it would help principals immensely to prepare their responses to staff, students, and families. One year later, no progress appears to have been made on this front, ”report authors wrote.

“It would be useful to have (administrators) find out about the latest developments in a different format other than watching it on the news,” a principal from southwestern Ontario told authors of the report.

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