You’re never too old to learn or practice something wise or something new?

But parents-in-the-classroom are not the solution to the current crisis of substitute-teacher shortages

So it’s come to this: in the event that schools that re-opened two weeks ago will soon face predicted teacher/staff shortages for various reasons, including Covid-related developments, Minister of Education François Roberge intends to deploy willing parents to classrooms to oversee in-person-learning, or as it will turn out, to baby-sit/child-care anyone who shows up for a day-at-school.

Where to begin to unravel this Covid-knotted cotton ball of mismanagement of the basic fact of education – professional presence in Québec classrooms? Let’s start by addressing the challenges this poses for school principals. Their job description includes managing the school’s budget, supervising staff and making big-picture decisions. But soon, some may have to return to their former roles of teacher and coach, filling in for absent teachers in the face of severe shortages of qualified substitute teachers.

Recent published reports acknowledge that many schools have been able to find substitutes for only 80%-85% of absent teachers on any-given-day, leaving existing staff to fill the void. It’s an all-hands-on-deck process. This has always been part of the emergency substitution plan inserted into teachers’ schedule for decades.

For teachers active in the system, the recently emerged need to fill-in for others is nothing new given that they did, on some days, in fact on many days, teach all day without planning periods, requiring them to do the planning at late-afternoon and evenings. What is new, however, is the impact on many staff members who are reaching the end of their rope, as debilitating fatigue is on the increase in all sectors of society.

It’s the latest example of how the pandemic has exacerbated the already exhausting challenges of running schools. When teachers are absent due to illness, COVID-19 exposure or other reasons, principals face the daunting task of finding qualified replacements to take their place, according to the Ministry of Education.

Numerous principals and school-board-officials maintain they were having trouble finding enough qualified substitutes to cover teacher absences long before Covis-19 struck, admitting that finding qualified substitute teachers is now even more of a challenge than any other school position, including bus-drivers, technicians, paraprofessionals, full-time-teachers, and custodians.

Clearly, the pandemic has provoked an escalation of staff-stress, impacting mental health at every level, according to teacher unions. Like all educators, the job of a substitute teacher has become more fraught during the past two years. They are called upon to teach in schools where children are likely still unvaccinated and might not be required to wear masks. In some cases, they’re filling in for teachers who are quarantining at home after being exposed to COVID-19. And many substitute teachers are in an age group more vulnerable to the disease. A substantial number of substitute teachers are retired educators, and in many cases, they simply are not willing to risk the COVID challenges to return to classroom/school work.

But the shortage of substitute teachers also preceded the pandemic in many places, as they face unpredictable schedules and the challenge of supervising students who might misbehave in the absence of regular teachers. Substitutes have no protection, no security; they pay union dues but are minimally-protected since they’re usually not-on-contract.

Several school boards have responded by changing requirements to become a substitute. Some schools have created emergency substitute-teacher lists, loosening requirements in response to severe-staffing-shortages. Yes, “loosening” as we have heard from Quebec’s Education Minister, Jean-François Roberge. Is he suggesting that parents, caretakers, anything with two legs and breathing, warm bodies are permitted to be substitute teachers, without credentials, not even minimum university requirements? Is he saying that all you need are baby-sitters in the classroom? A band-aid to the crisis of lack of qualified substitute-teachers? This has been an on-going problem for years, its solution escaping both the Ministry of Education and school boards. Covid-19 is a very poor excuse to play the blame game.

Without additional substitute-teachers, irreparable harm is inflicted on school children. These loosened rules, stop-gap-measures used to address critical shortages, are signs of desperation, indications of negligence in putting in place effective tools to fill needs that have had a long history of plaguing our public schools.

But merely lowering teaching qualifications is worrisome. Education experts and concerned parents, clamour for systemic changes that would make the profession more desirable and competitive long-term, especially for substitutes with university degrees, needing certification. They should be helped to obtain teaching certificates through special short-term university programs. Are those at the helm sleeping-at-the-switch? They will eventually also lose these individuals to other sectors in the workforce, if they don’t act swiftly. Where are the 8,000 qualified teachers reported to be needed by 2026 going to come from, if the Québec government doesn’t wake up from its Covid-19 deep sleep?

Yes, Minister Roberge’s suggestion that lowering standards for substitutes to the point where you’re not getting people skilled or knowledgeable in the content area, is questionable, and problematic, but he neglected to even remotely address the issue of the critical current void, in sane and pragmatic ways.

Schools, school boards, and the Minister of Education — because much of this is their responsibility — need to rebuild the teaching profession in ways that offer interested individuals the tools to facilitate certification based on their education and years of dedication and service to the community.

No, M. Roberge, as Education Minister, you must be accountable and held responsible for our children’s education. Warm bodies in classrooms simply will not do.

Renata Isopo