‘COVID Taught Us a Lot about Priorities’
Three years into the pandemic, what kind of supports do Ontario schools need?
“Ongoing staffing challenges, lack of daily staff supports for post-pandemic recovery, daily bus cancellations, lack of system navigation and social work for all families, and a focus on ‘catching up’ when massive structural issues continue to be major challenges. The idea that we are ‘back to normal’ seems to reign, yet every day is a challenge for staff and families. This places incredible pressure on administrators and staff who consistently attend work, further burning out essential staff. With labour challenges at the forefront and possible strikes, it remains unseen how much more the system can bear.” – Elementary school principal, Northern Ont.
The start of the 2022-23 school year was the closest to normal that students, families, and educators have experienced since September 2019 – but how are schools, educators, and students really doing? Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the newest findings from People for Education’s Annual Ontario School Survey (AOSS) provide valuable insights. This article will focus primarily on the data collected from the 2022-23 AOSS,1 which received responses from 1,044 principals across all 72 publicly funded school boards in the province.
When the pandemic first shut down schools in March 2020, the list of challenges that emerged seemed endless. There now exists a substantial body of research documenting how the relentless pivoting between no school, virtual school, hybrid school, and eventually in-person school triggered a domino effect of issues that included families troubleshooting technology, juggling remote learning and work, and navigating perpetually evolving health and safety protocols (People for Education, 2021a). None of us had ever gone through a global pandemic before, so it was natural to be focused on the logistics of COVID-19: monitoring positive case counts, screening tools, social distancing, and never leaving the house without a mask – or at all. In the meantime, people’s mental health and wellbeing were progressively being impacted by feelings of anxiety, isolation, or depression, to name just a few (Vaillancourt et al., 2021).
The first AOSS conducted after the arrival of COVID-19 immediately shone a light on the toll that the pandemic had taken, specifically on the wellbeing of school principals. More than half of the 1,173 principals who responded during the 2020-21 school year disagreed or strongly disagreed that their levels of stress felt manageable (People for Education, 2021b). This same finding occurred in the following 2021-22 school year, along with principals’ concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff (People for Education, 2022). At this point in time, principals’ perceptions about the availability of school resources to support staff and student mental health and wellbeing were mixed:
- 43% of principals agreed or strongly agreed that they had the necessary supports for student mental health and wellbeing; 37% disagreed or strongly disagreed.
- 35% of principals agreed or strongly agreed that they had the necessary supports for staff mental health and wellbeing; 37% disagreed or strongly disagreed.
However, in October 2022, when asked to indicate the level of support needed from boards and the Ministry of Education for recovery from COVID-19, the vast majority of schools (91%) reported that they require some or more support for mental health and wellbeing, with almost half (46%) reporting that they need a lot of support.
At the beginning of the pandemic, most of the focus in schools was on COVID-19 safety and the logistics of remote learning; three years into the pandemic, mental health and wellbeing supports have emerged as a top priority. Numerous principals shared insights about the specific challenges they are witnessing in the current school year.
“Children are excited to be back at school and there is an energy in the building. That said, many students have never experienced school pre-COVID and as such, are needing support in basic expectations regarding how to behave at school. We are noticing significant self-regulation challenges in primary; anxiety and fears of coming to school in junior; and a lot of sexualized /swearing/inappropriate language in our intermediates. And all grades struggling with conflict resolution skills.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
“Student needs have increased significantly due to COVID-19: self-regulation, literacy, numeracy, mental wellness. Due to the impact of COVID-19 many students are experiencing many more challenges. These challenges are being met as best we can with the resources we have. Human resources are the most important type of resource.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
Although mental health and wellbeing was identified as the area where schools feel that support is most needed, staffing was also consistently underscored as a critical issue. This finding is not surprising, given that:
“Supporting increased children’s mental health needs with no increases in resources stresses the staff and leads to increased absenteeism. The lack of replacement staff (especially for Educational Assistants (EAs) and designated Early Childhood Educators (DECEs)) causes this problem to snowball.” – Elementary school principal, southwestern Ont.
The lack of sufficient staff has been regularly highlighted over the past three years (People for Education 2021a; 2022). Early in 2022, a wave of the highly transmissible Omicron variant prompted an investigation into staff absences across numerous school boards and found that the number of daily unfilled teaching jobs was, on average, steadily increasing (Teotonio & Rushowy, 2022). School boards used various strategies to cover staffing shortages, such as removing the caps on the number of days worked by retired teachers, permitting student teachers to work, assigning teachers classes to cover during their planning time, and principals stepping back into classrooms.
These survival tactics, however, did not come without a cost to the mental health and wellbeing of school staff and students alike. When asked if there were any challenges so far in the current 2022-23 school year, one elementary school principal in northern Ontario wrote:
“People are burning out way more quickly post-COVID, partly due to staffing challenges; learning and mental health needs of students are exacerbated post-COVID; the staff shortage impact on daily triage of student needs because of illness and no one to cover; having all expectations of a ‘normal everything open year’ without allowing educators to build back up before being expected to go all out for everything.”
The finding that 91% of Ontario schools need some or more support for mental health and wellbeing supports is inextricably tied to the finding that 82% of Ontario schools reported needing some or more support for school support staff. After all, one of the primary ways of addressing mental health and wellbeing is with more staff who specialize in this area. An elementary school principal in southwestern Ontario explained, “Full-time mental health care workers are required in schools to be present and available to support students and families on a DAILY basis, and to offer support for staff who are struggling to deal with the class dynamics erupting from mental health challenges.”
While 78% of schools expressed needing some or more support for teaching staff, only 19% noted needing a lot of support, which is markedly less than the 35% of schools who expressed needing a lot of support for school support staff (e.g. educational assistants, administrators, custodians, etc.) (See Figure 2). This finding is significant, given recent events related to job action and labour negotiations for education workers in the province (McKenzie-Sutter, 2022). While teaching shortages do exist, there is currently a higher demand for education support workers. One elementary school principal in southwestern Ontario described the situation: “Staffing shortages are leading to a crisis in education. Addressing the shortages across all employee groups has to be a priority for the government.”
As we look ahead to the remainder of the 2022-23 school year, it is essential to consider what actions are necessary to address the needs of Ontario’s publicly funded schools. Here are some ideas suggested by principals:
- Focus on funding human resources, especially support staff for mental health and wellbeing.
- “Some students are really struggling; however, we are not seeing an increase in supports – do better with less seems to be the refrain.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
- “Where extra supports and monies should be funnelled into in-person schools, year-over-year we have more students and fewer staff. This year, the ‘tutoring’ funds being delivered directly to families/privately would be much better used by adding human resources to the day-to-day school staff.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
- Increase access to family and community supports.
- “Greater access to social work support, behaviour support services, and system navigation for families. Greater support is needed for community support agencies who service schools but have also been otherwise impacted by C-19.” – Elementary school principal, northern Ont.
- Recognize how difficult the pandemic has been on school communities.
- “Fewer new initiatives in the next three to five years as we work to re-establish benchmarks and define our ‘new’ or ‘next’ normal!” – Elementary school principal, GTA
- “Real and meaningful recognition of how hard the last 2+ years have been on students and staff.” – Secondary school principal, GTA
- “Teachers and support staff are exhausted. They returned from summer break somewhat reinvigorated and more optimistic, but energy has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Folks are tired, and the trauma of the last three years will take some time to overcome.” – Secondary school principal, southwestern Ont.
Three years into the pandemic, COVID has taught us the importance of mental health and wellbeing, as well as the incredibly huge role that schools play in our lives. If public education is the foundation of our society and the key to solving many of society’s current problems, it is crucial to learn from the challenges of the past few years and get our priorities right as we plan for a happier, healthier, and more hopeful future. As one elementary school principal from southwestern Ontario put it:
“A recovery plan for a global pandemic, hmm… I think it is an opportunity to rethink some aspects of public education. Could be a great opportunity.”
McKenzie-Sutter, H. (2022, November 4). What you need to know about the Ontario education workers’ strike. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/9253376/ontario-cupe-education-worker-strike-explained
People for Education. (2021a). Challenges and innovations: 2021-20 annual report on Ontario schools.
People for Education. (2021b). Ontario principals’ challenges and well-being: Annual Ontario School Survey 2021. https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/People-for-Educations-report-on-Ontario-Principals-Challenges-and-Wellbeing-AOSS2021.pdf
People for Education. (2022). A perfect storm of stress: Ontario’s publicly funded schools in year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/People-for-Education_A-Perfect-Storm-of-Stress_May-2022.pdf
Teotonio, I. & Rushowy, K. (2022, February 7). ‘Really severe challenges’: Ontario school boards struggle with unprecedented staff absences. The Toronto Star. www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/02/07/really-severe-challenges-ontario-school-boards-struggle-with-unprecedented-staff-absences.html
Vaillancourt, T., Szatmari, P., Georgiades, K., & Krygsman, A. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of Canadian children and youth. FACETS, 6(1), 1628–1648. doi.org/10.1139/FACETS-2021-0078
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 The 2022–2023 AOSS is the 26th annual survey of elementary schools and 23rd annual survey of secondary schools in Ontario.