Concerns for larger classes grow as teachers leave, funding freezes

‘Teachers are taking mental health leaves, early retirement, or just leaving the profession altogether. And it is because of the stress in the system. Teachers do not feel supported’

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Class sizes are expected to grow this fall as teachers — exhausted by the pandemic and an expressed lack of supports — take stress leaves or early retirement, and school boards struggle with flat funding.

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Teacher surveys and data from local school boards indicate an exodus of educators over the past two years, with teachers taking leaves and fewer teachers on staff than before the pandemic, including fewer educational assistants in the public system.

At the same time, school boards such as the Calgary Board of Education were forced to dip into reserves to balance their budgets this spring after flat funding from the UCP government did not meet their needs for growth.

“We anticipate a ballooning of class sizes in the system this fall with fewer teachers expected in classrooms,” said Medeana Moussa, spokeswoman with the Support Our Students advocacy group.

“Principals are being left to their own devices, with less funding to their schools, and being forced to cut librarians, gym teachers and especially special ed teachers who are working with small groups of students with high needs.”

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Union leaders say they are also concerned there will be fewer teachers this fall, which means larger class sizes across the province, especially in larger urban centres.

“We will see larger class sizes, simply because boards will not have the funding to properly resource their classrooms. Classes are getting larger, but there are also more complexities than ever within these classrooms,” said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, adding that substitute teachers will also leave.

“It will be a serious issue in the fall, because we also won’t be seeing as many substitute teachers on the roster.

“COVID is still impacting classrooms, and many subs are just choosing not to put themselves in the sub pool until they see better supports in the classroom.”

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Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling.
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling. Photo by Shaughn Butts /Postmedia, file

The ATA has collected survey data from teachers throughout the pandemic, with the most recent survey completed at the end of 2021 indicating the number of Alberta teachers planning to leave the profession for another job this fall has more than doubled.

The ATA’s “Pulse Survey” conducted at the end of November suggests more than 37 per cent of respondents reported they probably won’t be teaching in Alberta next year.

Compared to an annual member opinion survey done last March, the number of teachers planning to retire was similar, at 16 per cent, but the percentage who said they are leaving for another job has doubled, increasing to 14 per cent.

“We have seen this trend within our surveys throughout the pandemic,” Schilling said.

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“Teachers are taking mental-health leaves, early retirement, or just leaving the profession altogether. And it is because of the stress in the system. Teachers do not feel supported.”

At the same time, the CBE is expecting 6,502 teachers and 527 educational assistants in schools this fall, down from the 6,661 teachers and 667 EAs they had on staff in 2019, just before the pandemic hit.

The Calgary Catholic School District could not provide staff numbers for this fall, but did confirm that in 2021 it had 3,233 teachers, down from 3,418 in 2019. Numbers for EAs have come up, however, from 489 pre-pandemic to 532 in 2021.

The reduction in teachers is coupled with concerns from both boards this spring that they received flat funding from the province, essentially the same amount of operating dollars as they received in the previous budget year.

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In late May, CBE trustees approved a $1.37-billion budget for 2022-23, totalling $142 less than last year’s budget despite an additional 1,500 students expected in September.

Parents, too, are deeply concerned about staffing levels, as well as an increasing lack of transparency around exactly how crowded classrooms are.

Just before the pandemic, the UCP government quietly removed a class size initiative grant, providing $3.4 billion over a decade to reduce class sizes.

Along with that funding cut came the removal of the requirement for school boards to report class sizes annually to the province, with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange promising to create a new initiative to make class sizes smaller.

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Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. Photo by Ed Kaiser /Postmedia

The province has encouraged individual school boards to still report average class sizes on their websites, but neither the CBE nor the CCSD are doing so.

We do not track class size data formally across the system,” said CBE spokeswoman Joanne Anderson.

“School principals work to balance complexity and the range of student needs in classes in a way that will optimize the experience for all students within available resources.”

Sandra Borowski, with the CCSD, added: “Currently, Calgary Catholic does not track district-wide class size averages.”

But Moussa is skeptical, saying principals have little funding to work with and that families have a right to know what class sizes are in a publicly funded school system.

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“Not tracking class sizes and not being transparent is a huge disservice to our communities and to taxpayers,” she said, adding that anecdotally, parents have reported Grade 1 class sizes as high as 35 kids, and Grade 12 classes as large as 45.

“It’s vital that we have this information and that families understand what kind of environment their children are in, and that there is an understanding of the lack of support that teachers are receiving.”

Katherine Stavropoulos, press secretary for LaGrange, said that in early 2020 the Alberta government refocused its priorities on the pandemic, meaning the 2019 initiative to look at class sizes could not proceed.

“As we approach the 2022-23 school year, our focus continues to be on supporting students affected by the pandemic,” she said.

“This includes the recently announced investment of an additional $110 million over three years to address mental health, specialized assessments and learning loss supports.”

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