Concerns over larger classrooms mount as teachers leave, funding freezes

‘Teachers take mental health leave, take early retirement or simply leave the profession. And that’s because of the stress in the system. Teachers don’t feel supported’

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Class size is expected to grow this fall as teachers — exhausted by the pandemic and a pronounced lack of support — take stress-related leave or early retirement and school boards struggle with fixed funding.

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Surveys of teachers and data from local school boards indicate an exodus of educators in the past two years, with teachers taking leave and hiring fewer teachers than before the pandemic, including fewer teaching assistants in the public system.

At the same time, school boards like the Calgary Board of Education were forced to dive into reserves this spring to balance their budgets after the UCP government’s fixed funding failed to meet their growth needs.

“We expect an explosion of classes in the system this fall and fewer teachers in the classroom,” said Medeana Moussa, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Support Our Students.

“Principles are left to their own devices, with less money for their schools, and forced to stop having librarians, PE teachers and especially special teachers working with small groups of students with high needs.”

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Union leaders also say they are concerned there will be fewer teachers this fall, leading to larger classes across the province, especially in larger urban centers.

“We will see larger classes simply because boards will not have the financial resources to properly service their classrooms. The classes are getting bigger, but there are also more complexities than ever in these classrooms,” said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, adding that substitute teachers will also be leaving.

“It will be a serious problem in the autumn, because we won’t see many replacement teachers on the schedule either.

“COVID is still impacting classrooms, and a lot of subs just choose not to put themselves in the subpool until they see better support in the classroom.”

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Alberta Teachers' Association President Jason Schilling.
Alberta Teachers’ Association President Jason Schilling. Photo by Shaughn ButtsPost media, file

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

The ATA’s “P”ulse survey” conducted in late November suggests that more than 37 percent of respondents said they were unlikely to teach in Alberta next year.

Compared to an annual membership poll conducted last March, the number of teachers planning to retire was similar at 16 percent, but the percentage who said they would leave for another job has doubled to 14 percent.

“We’ve seen this trend in our surveys during the pandemic,” Schilling said.

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“Teachers take mental health leave, take early retirement or just leave the profession altogether. And that’s because of the stress in the system. Teachers don’t feel supported.”

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

The Calgary Catholic School District was unable to provide staff numbers this fall, but did confirm that they had 3,233 teachers in 2021, up from 3,418 in 2019. However, the number of ed assistants has increased from 489 pre-pandemic to 532 in 2021.

The reduction in the number of teachers is coupled with concerns from both boards this spring that they have received steady funding from the county, essentially the same amount of operating dollars as they received in the previous fiscal year.

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At the end of May, CBE trustees approved a $1.37 billion budget for 2022-23, totaling just $142 less than last year budget despite the expected 1,500 additional students in September.

Parents are also very concerned about staffing levels and an increasing lack of transparency about how full classrooms are.

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

Along with that cut came the repeal of the requirement for school boards to report class size to the county annually, with Education Secretary Adriana LaGrange promising to create a new initiative to make class sizes smaller.

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Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange.
Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange. Photo by Ed Kaiserpost media

The county has encouraged individual school boards to still list average class sizes on their websites, but the CBE and CCSD do not.

We don’t formally track class size data across the system,” said CBE spokeswoman Joanne Anderson.

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

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

But Moussa is skeptical, explaining that school principals have little money to work with and that families have a right to know class sizes in a government-funded school system.

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“Not following class sizes and not being transparent is a huge disservice to our communities and to taxpayers,” she said, adding that anecdotally parents have reported that class 1 classes are as large as 35 children and class sizes 12 as big 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’s an understanding of the lack of support that teachers are getting.”

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

“As we approach the 2022-2023 school year, our focus remains 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, specialist assessments and support for learning loss.”

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