Ontario school survey reveals principals feel ‘left to fend for themselves’

Findings from People for Education’s (PFE) 2021-22 Annual Ontario School Survey (AOSS): A Perfect Storm of Stress, show that there has been little or no respite for educators in the second year of the pandemic. The issues that students and educators were facing in 2020-21 remain relatively unchanged, and the magnitude and urgency of these issues have only grown, according to the first report released in late March 2022.

Pivoting back and forth between virtual and in-person classes, significant staffing shortages, and increased stress levels among staff and students were all challenges faced by those in Ontario schools in the 2021-2022 school year, according to the findings of a survey of Ontario elementary and secondary school principals conducted by People for Education. Photo by Ivan Aleksic.

Based on survey responses from 965 principals representing 71 of the 72 school boards across Ontario, this first report of four examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Ontario’s publicly funded schools

A ‘fail to fill’ staffing situation

In their responses, 90 per cent of principals named staffing shortages as a paramount hazard. Coordinating staffing, filling absences, and safety concerns caused by fewer staff members were of grave concern. The responses also pointed out that lack of adequate staff takes a toll on teachers who become expected to do much more in their very limited time.

According to PFE, the staffing crisis is the result of a compounding impact of increasing the length of the teacher education program to two years — cutting admissions to teachers’ faculties by 50 per cent — and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As we move away from Covid, we don’t have the number of qualified teachers we need to fill positions,” observed a Principal from the Kingston region,” pointing to a study by the Ontario College of Teachers that indicated the number of new teachers will be unable to keep up with the number of retirements coming in the foreseeable future. “This does not account for leaves (medical, maternity, etc.) and means that we will either see more shortages, or more unqualified teachers working with students.”

Also tying principals’ hands is a lack of funding; funding for staff during the pandemic was initially augmented by the federal government and by increased funding from the province, however, that level of funding did not continue into the 2021-22 school year, PFE asserts.

Principals have been pushed to their limits

Fifty-one per cent of principals reported that they disagreed or strongly disagreed that their recent levels of stress at work feels manageable. 

In their comments, principals pointed to the lack of support on all fronts — administrative, funding, safety resources, communication from the government — and how this has taken a toll on their well-being and capacity to do their jobs.

Another principal from the Kingston region shared, “I’ve never seen morale in the principalship so low. Everyone is talking early retirement, medical leave, or changing careers. Every day begins with staffing triage and trying to our keep schools open and safe, so parents can go to work. My doctor told me that prescriptions for stress and anxiety have gone through the roof for those in our occupation. We have been in survival mode for far too long already and there is no end in sight.”

Supports missing for student and staff mental health and well-being

Only 43 per cent of principals agreed with the statement, “My school has the resources necessary to support the mental health and well-being of its students.” The response was even lower when asked the same question about support for staff mental health and well-being, with only 35 per cent of principals agreeing necessary supports were available for staff.

Graphic supplied by People for Education from the 2021-22 AOSS.
Graphic supplied by People for Education.

While a high proportion of principals did report having the option to connect virtually with mental health and wellness support workers, they also highlighted the drawbacks of this model. For example, one elementary principal explained, “this type of model does NOT work for our students and families. Many families experience multiple systemic barriers (e.g., poverty, non-English speaking, health issues, lack of access to tech, etc.).”

Hybrid learning 

This year, 27 per cent of elementary principals and 47 per cent of secondary principals said they are responsible for hybrid schools. In the case of elementary schools, that is more than double the proportion of the online learning model employed last year.

In these schools, teachers are simultaneously teaching students learning in-person and online. In their comments, most principals responding to the AOSS said that the model was unworkable. One said it was, “like teaching swimming and rock climbing in the same class.”

The hybrid model was intended to provide flexibility for families and for school boards. However, principals have called it, “the most difficult task assigned to teachers to date,” saying the model increased workloads, stress, and anxiety for educators, and decreased schools’ capacity to support students with special needs or disabilities. The report indicates that student attendance, participation, and engagement nose-dived during online learning.

Graphic supplied by People for Education.

“Working in a rural school, the transfer to virtual access has been mixed. Students in rural settings now have access to specialists like never before, but the experience is only available virtually. The best way to describe virtual school/meetings is similar to sporting events. Watching sports on TV will give you the information you need, but it can never replace the experience of being at the arena in person,” one Kingston area principal illuminated.

Ongoing communication and implementation issues

A major complaint in last year’s survey was the lack of communication between the Ministry of Education and schools. One year later, no progress appears to have been made on this front. One GTA area principal criticized the Minister of Education’s lack of cooperation with schools, and noted that, “having to figure out what is happening and next steps based on what CP24 and other news outlets share with us is not a great way to lead.” 

“The consistent lack of consultation and communication between the government and school leaders, despite the numerous recommendations that have been made to include education stakeholders in decision-making, has left many principals feeling overlooked, overworked, and undervalued,” the report reads.

People for Education’s recommendations

Last year, at the end of the first full year of the pandemic in 2021, school principals had four key recommendations: consult stakeholders before policy implementation, communicate changes in advance, fund additional staffing, and broaden access to technology. Despite that, a recent media release from PFE asserted that, “one year later, the findings from AOSS 2021–22 are clear: there has been little response to the previous calls for action. According to the principals responding to this year’s AOSS, the lack of action has exacerbated what was already a deeply challenging situation.”

Once again in this year’s report, PFE is calling for increased support for schools, staff, and students, whom they said, “need to be supported by a concise and comprehensive plan to offset the disruptions, stress, and damage that education systems have endured over the past two years. Last year’s recommendations – for consultation, communication, funding, and increased access to technology – need to be part of a comprehensive and clear plan to manage, assess, and respond to the educational impacts of COVID-19.”

Annie Kidder, Executive Director, People for Education commented, “The impact of the pandemic on students and staff will not end as COVID numbers decline, and the issues raised by principals will not magically disappear in the coming year. It is vital that we listen to these professionals who are telling us that they are dedicated to their jobs, but that they and their staff are also hamstrung by problematic policy and a lack of sufficient support. Like all our education partners, People for Education continues to call on the government to convene an Education Advisory Task Force to ensure the province has a comprehensive plan for the coming years.”

Local School Boards response to the report

While neither of the Directors of Education of local, publicly-funded English school boards would avail themselves for an interview regarding the report’s findings, both school boards provided statements from their Directors through their communications personnel.

A statement attributed to David DeSantis, Director of Education with the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board (ALCDSB) reads, “The pandemic has limited our ability to consistently deliver in-person learning these past two years, which has had a tremendous impact on the day-to-day operations of our Catholic schools. We have learned from this experience and are confident that we are able to support our staff and students in their transitions, whether it be to or from a remote learning environment.” 

The Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board. Photo by Lucas Mulder.

Contrary to the findings of PFE’s report, the statement from DeSantis asserted that, “the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have reminded us that teaching can happen in a classroom, around the kitchen table, and in front of a screen. We have also learned that successful learning demands human connection, acknowledgement of individual passions, and the celebration of accomplishments.”

“The Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board is committed to focusing on using our many blessings and resources to be more than just a great Catholic Education system. We commit to creating faith-filled learning communities where each member is loved, inspired, and successful, despite the obstacles we may face,” he concluded.

The statement from Krishna Burra, Director of Education of Limestone District School Board (LDSB), admitted that, “the pandemic has been challenging for all students, families, and staff Over the course of the last two years,” and commended Limestone staff and students for having, “demonstrated tremendous flexibility and adaptability.” Both staff and students, “have become much more adept at moving from one model of learning to another when required,” he stated.

His statement pointed out that, “the first transition to virtual learning in March 2020 was a challenge for the system, but successive pivots at different points of time have been much smoother. While the pandemic has impacted everyone, it has had an uneven impact. We continue to strive to meet students where they are, and we must be [sic] continue to be responsive to student needs and focus on learning for every student.”

Limestone District School Board
Limestone district school board on Portsmouth Avenue in Kingston. Photo by Lucas Mulder.

“With an increase in COVID-19 activity within our surrounding community, there has been an increase in staff and student absences in schools over the past couple of months, putting pressure on school staffing, and reducing the number of students in some classrooms,” Krishna said in the statement. “In Limestone, we have limited the amount of hybrid learning that needs to occur. There is no question the pandemic has taken a toll on people and has been incredibly stressful. Mental health supports are always critical to support students and staff, and this has been a priority.”

“School administrators have done the best they can to keep a focus on learning and ensuring sufficient staffing is in place to continue to provide in-person learning. While the staffing pressures due to absences peak from time to time, and we encountered significant pressures in early April, we have not had to pivot or close any classes or schools in 2022,” he concluded. “We are cautiously optimistic that in-person learning will be able to continue on an uninterrupted basis for the balance of this school year.”

For more information or to read the report, Annual Ontario School Survey 2021–22: A perfect storm of stress, visit People for Education online.

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