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Students board a school bus at the Nakasuk Elementary School in Iqaluit in Nunavut on Monday, March 30, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteNATHAN DENETTE/The Canadian Press

As the school year begins in Nunavut, the education department is reporting 54 vacant teaching positions, a problem mirrored in many regions across the country as some teachers cite ongoing pandemic stress and anxiety in pushing them to consider leaving the profession.

It’s not unusual for the northern territory to face teacher vacancies, with Nunavut needing 26 teachers around this time in 2020 and 60 in 2019.

But this year’s shortfall comes as a fourth wave of COVID-19 threatens to upend a third school year in a row, and after pandemic-related upheaval exhausted many teachers during the last school year.

The president of the Nunavut Teachers’ Association said he was “disappointed” by the number of teachers that still needed to be hired for this school year.

“Teacher retention and recruitment has always been an issue in Nunavut,” said Justin Matchett.

Despite the vacancies, schools across the territory are open and running at full capacity, but some staff, including non-teaching staff, may be pulled to cover classrooms.

While teacher vacancies are a concern across the country, it’s especially difficult to recruit teachers in Nunavut, Matchett said. That’s because most of Nunavut’s teaching staff are from outside the territory and schools face high rates of staff turnover from year to year.

Housing is also a big barrier to keeping teachers in the North, he added, with teachers in communities often sharing accommodations because there aren’t enough spaces to house them.

“That’s not ideal for people with families,” he said. “We have a lot of members not happy with their housing situation.”

He notes some teachers who were hired for this schoolyear decided not to come because there was no housing available for them.

Nunavut’s education department declined an interview request, but said in a statement that it works throughout the year to recruit teachers.

The department said it advertises teaching positions at career fairs, on social media and at universities across the country.

Although the pandemic has eased in the territory, COVID-19 infections took hold in two communities – Arviat and Iqaluit – and caused both communities to shut their schools for months in 2020 and early 2021.

A national survey from the Canadian Teachers Federation in November 2020 said teachers across the country were reaching their breaking point” and experiencing high levels of stress and burnout amid the pandemic.

That led to teaching shortages across the country as teachers resigned or took leave during the height of the pandemic, the survey said.

A 2020 report from the Ontario College of Teachers said fewer teachers than expected renewed their licenses in 2020, resulting in a loss of about 3,600 teachers in that province.

“The coronavirus further stresses a hiring situation that is already challenging,” said Frank McIntyre, the report’s author.

Most first-year teachers on supply rosters also lost all future first-year assignments when schools closed in the province because of COVID-19, the report said.

In addition to the strain caused by the pandemic, the college also found that the regular surplus of teachers in Ontario was “almost fully depleted,” and at least 5,800 teachers will retire annually over the next several years.

Nathan Martindale, vice-president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, said that province is also facing a high number of teacher vacancies.

In November 2020, the society held a virtual town hall with the province’s teachers, where half of participants said they were thinking of changing careers or quitting because of added stress brought on by the pandemic.

“Last year was extremely challenging and the workload was very intense for our members,” he said

Martindale said the province didn’t have enough substitute teachers before the pandemic, and that problem is even worse now. If teachers get sick, there aren’t enough staff to fill in for them, he said.

“That’s actually an added layer of stress, not knowing if a sub will come in that day,” he said.

Sam Hammond, president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, said some provinces also saw a spike in retirements last year, leaving some schools with fewer teachers to start out with this year.

“The pandemic certainly contributed to that,” he said.

Teachers are also facing some anxiety as they return to the classroom, Hammond said, as a fourth wave and the Delta variant spread across the country.

“They know what they’re headed into, but I think there’s a deeper concern this time,” he said.

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