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Supply Teachers Fear They Could Be COVID-19 'Superspreaders'

Going from school to school, they're at a “substantially higher risk” than other teachers.

When one Ontario supply teacher thinks about going back to school, she can’t help but draw a comparison to how COVID-19 spread in the province’s long-term care homes in the spring.

In April, the province limited long-term care staff to only work in one home. But before that, they could continue working in multiple homes, spreading the highly contagious virus from vulnerable residents in one home to vulnerable residents in another.

Over 1,800 long-term care residents, and eight staff members, have died of COVID-19, according to the province’s data. There have been COVID-19 outbreaks in over 300 of the province’s 626 long-term care homes.

Now, Jenna, a high school supply teacher in York Region, is worried about the possibility of herself and other supply teachers working in multiple schools, increasing the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in the system.

“It’s such a similar situation that it scares me,” the teacher, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her job, told HuffPost Canada.

WATCH: Ontario releases new COVID-19 guidance for schools. Story continues below.

As teachers prepare to go back to school, many are worried about how to maintain physical distancing in their classrooms and the risks to their health.

Supply teachers are at a “substantially higher risk” than other teachers, said Dr. Robyn Lee, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Lee also compared the work of supply teachers to that of long-term care home staff in the beginning of the pandemic.

“I am concerned that that’s something that we might see in the fall or whenever schools end up opening up, that we may see transmission associated with supply teachers moving between institutions which puts them at higher risk and also the students potentially as well,” she said.

No province-wide rules for supply teachers

In Ontario, there’s no provincial restriction on how many schools a supply teacher can work in. This leaves it up to individual school boards to set restrictions.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said at an August press conference that the province has “effectively” taken the same approach to schools as it did for long-term care in the spring. The province’s guidance for school boards says that supply teachers “really need to, to the extent humanly possible, focus on one school or a small limit of schools,” he said.

A spokesperson for Lecce did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment in time for publication.

Reducing the number of schools where a supply teacher works could go a “long way” to reduce the risk of spreading the virus between schools, Dr. Lee said. Reducing class sizes is also a critical measure, she said.

Despite pressure from the public and teachers’ unions, however, the province has not committed to reducing class sizes. Improving ventilation and ensuring students are wearing masks would also help keep students and staff safe, she said.

York Region District School Board, where Jenna works, did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment including information on its policy for supply teachers.

“It’s being left up to us between the chance to work and the ability to keep others safe ...”

Some teachers in the board may also work in Toronto or Durham, Jenna said, increasing the risk of contracting — and spreading — the virus even further. She’s worried about supply teachers being “superspreaders” of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“I don’t know why the ministry hasn’t done anything yet,” she said. “I can’t see another safer way [than to limit supply teachers’ assignments].”

She is hoping to get a long-term occasional (LTO) placement for the fall, but the open positions haven’t been posted online yet. If she doesn’t get one, she would try to limit her availability to just one school of the over 50 in her board, and “hope for the best” to get calls. She’d also consider taking a leave of absence and tutoring for the year.

“It’s being left up to us between the chance to work and the ability to keep others safe, and ourselves safe,” she said.

Some LTOs don’t know where they’ll be teaching

G.M. is used to the uncertainty of sometimes not knowing until September where he will be teaching, as is the case right now. He has been a teacher for over 10 years, and is an LTO high-school teacher in the Peel District School Board (PDSB). LTOs may be hired to fill a teachers leave for part of the year or the whole year.

This year, though, his uncertainty has a new dimension. He’s at higher risk of having a serious case of COVID-19 because he has diabetes and hypertension, and doesn’t know if he’ll be in an older school or a newer, retrofitted one.

“I know that there’s some problems in schools that they couldn’t possibly fix quickly,” said the teacher, who asked to only be identified by his initials out of fear of losing his job. “I’m worried I might end up in a classroom that’s got poor ventilation and there’s really not much I can do about it.”

Carla Pereira, the PDSB’s director of communications and community relations, said the board has been ensuring all HVAC systems are “working to their maximum capacity” and will be programmed to start earlier before classes start and end later in the day.

“It is our understanding that there has been no determination, across the province, that occasional teachers who interact with multiple cohorts in different schools face any more risk than if they teach multiple cohorts in one school,” Pereira said, adding the board will continue to follow local public health recommendations.

Dr. Lee, the epidemiologist, said a supply teacher teaching multiple classes within the same school would be at higher risk than other teachers there, but that risk would likely be lower than that of one who is moving between different schools to teach. Those risk levels also depend on a school’s location and the level of community transmission in the area, she added.

G.M said going to work as a teacher is the biggest risk he’s taken in the pandemic. He said he could get a note from his doctor to be exempt from in-person teaching, or take the year off. But he believes it’s important to be a teacher right now, and worries about whether he’ll do a good job and teach the students everything they’ll need to know.

“If the kids lose a year, … some it will affect more than others, but it [could] have a significant effect on their lives,” he said. “I think every teacher is worried about that.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Dr. Robyn Lee was an associate professor of epidemiology. She is an assistant professor.

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