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Parents demand fix for staffing shortfall at Vancouver elementary

Parents of students at Lord Strathcona Elementary School say some classes have gone months without a regular teacher.  (CBC - image credit)
Parents of students at Lord Strathcona Elementary School say some classes have gone months without a regular teacher. (CBC - image credit)

Parents at an East Vancouver elementary school are urging the local school board to act over what they say are "serious" ongoing staffing shortages and cutbacks.

In a March 6 letter, the parents' advisory council (PAC) at Lord Strathcona Elementary School says some classes have been taught by on-call teachers for months on end, while a lack of support staff has left students with disabilities without a proper education.

The letter, a copy of which was sent to CBC News, calls on the Vancouver School Board (VSB) to immediately address the staffing issues.

Danielle Sherring said last year her son's class went six weeks with a constant rotation of substitute teachers.

"He said, 'Mom, I just don't know what to expect. I don't know what that teacher's expectations are going to be for the day,'" Sherring told CBC News.

Additionally, Sherring said her son's classes have been without any education assistant — workers who provide support for students with disabilities and complex needs — for months at a time over the past two years.

Sherring's son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and benefits from having a support worker as he requires frequent breaks.

"My son's classroom has a lot of kids that have support needs that are going unmet, and that impacts the whole classroom," she said, adding that her son went into Grade 2 not knowing how to read.

"There wasn't learning happening in the classroom because the teacher was having to constantly put out fires," she said.

The VSB told CBC News in a statement that it's usual practice for on-call educators to fill absences, and that staffing is based on student enrolment and needs assessments.

Union seeks transparency

Marina Gardiner, chair of the Lord Strathcona PAC, said many parents are concerned about the quality of education at the school, reporting major delays in literacy and unmanaged disruptive behaviour in classrooms, including violence.

"[The teachers] are getting tired. They are burned out," said Gardiner. "We're concerned about the future for these students."

She said parents are calling on the VSB for more transparency, including information on how many positions are vacant at the school and how many teachers are being recruited.

"We're raising the future, and so we're not going to give up. We need the support and we need the VSB to listen."

Gardiner said the PAC asked the school board to speak at a meeting in January but were denied. She said parents had an "informal" conversation with school board staff but have yet to see any improvement.

Marina Gardiner, chair of the PAC at Lord Strathcona Elementary School, walks by the school with her daughter.
Marina Gardiner, chair of the PAC at Lord Strathcona Elementary School, walks by the school with her daughter.

Marina Gardiner, chair of the PAC at Lord Strathcona Elementary School, walks by the school with her daughter. (CBC)

The VSB said the PAC's request to speak at the board meeting was denied because the subject was a specific school-based matter, while presentations from community members are reserved for matters relating to governance or budget.

Jody Polukoshko from the Vancouver Elementary and Adult Educators' Society (VEAES), a union representing elementary school teachers, said she has asked the VSB for staffing information, including the teacher turnover rate and how many candidates have applied and been turned away.

"That's something we have been really frustrated with. We've been asking for this data for literally years." Polukoshko said.

Jody Polukoshko with the union representing Vancouver elementary teachers believes "failure to fill" situations are happening more often than the school board admits.
Jody Polukoshko with the union representing Vancouver elementary teachers believes "failure to fill" situations are happening more often than the school board admits.

Jody Polukoshko with the Vancouver Elementary and Adult Educators' Society says the union has asked the VSB for more transparency on vacancies and hiring. (Jim Mulleder/CBC)

She says the union has also asked for many years exactly how provincial funding dedicated to students with special needs is being spent.

"How that funding is allocated is completely opaque," she said.

She says supports for students with special needs are further lost when positions are vacant as schools often use other staff — including librarians, education assistants and counsellors — to fill in for teachers.

Sherring says she has seen this first hand. She said she has an older son who previously attended Lord Strathcona, and has seen support decrease steadily since 2016.

"I can see the impacts that it's having on all of the classrooms and all of the teachers," said Sherring. "It's so palpable you can feel it — you can feel it in the morale of the school."