06/05/2013 20:12 EDT | Updated 08/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Ontario schools see spike in staff sick days

Several Ontario schools have been struggling to find substitute teachers during an end-of-year spike in staff absenteeism.

Last Friday alone, Peel District School Board counted roughly 1650 absences among teachers, teacher assistants, and office staff – up from about 1300 absences at the same time last year.

"[The Peel board saw] probably about 400 additional absences this past Friday than the comparison Friday a year ago," said Scott Moreash, superintendent of staff development for PDSB.

"So in other words, for every four teachers absent, we have one teacher who is not replaced by an occasional teacher — which then taxes the systems in the school."

Struggling to find substitute teachers

Despite indications that there is an oversupply of teachers in Ontario, Carla Pereira, a spokesperson for the PDSB, told CBC News that it is often difficult to find supply teachers, or what they call occasional teachers.

One challenge, she said, is that many of those that fill in for full-time teachers work for multiple boards, which makes scheduling them more complicated.

Also, fewer occasional teachers are available to work on Mondays and Fridays, which also happen to be the most common sick days for staff members.

The Toronto District School Board, which has also seen a higher-than-normal number of teacher absences, told CBC News that is has been forced to merge some classes.

Likewise, David Clegg, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario in York Region, said schools in his region have faced a similar problem.

"In York region we have a shortage of occasional teachers, and I think that’s attributable basically to the labour disruption over the course of the last year," he said in a Tuesday interview with Metro Morning, adding that the list of fill-in teachers to call got shorter during the dispute.

"A lot of teachers that were occasional teachers simply had to look for other work."

Reasons for absenteeism unclear

Last year the province imposed a new contract on teachers that not only cut the number of sick days each teacher could take, from 20 to 11, but also eliminated the option to bank their unused sick days.

Minister of Education Liz Sandals, who said the boards have not formally complained of a trend, neverthless discouraged those who may be inappropriately using sick days before the summer.

"The purpose of sick days is that when you are sick you take the sick day," she said. "It isn't that if you're well and you think you have a couple of sick days left over that you should go off sick."

The reasons for the trend is not altogether clear at the ground level.

CBC's Matt Galloway asked Clegg if he sees a link between the loss of bankable sick days and the rise of absenteeism among staff members, but Clegg said he has "no objective evidence" that supports that.

"On the surface you would think that, human nature would suggest that, some people might make that choice — I don’t have the evidence for that," he said.

"I can tell you that the school board received additional dollars for the next school year for occasional teachers from the government."

Clegg added that funds for fill-in teachers, among the only part of the budget that increased, "quite clearly" indicates some believe they will be in higher demand.