Fall 2020

The Potential Impact of Covid-19 on the Near-Term Elementary School Teacher Supply

Evolving Teacher Supply and Demand

The COVID-19 pandemic can be characterized as a “black swan event,” defined as an improbable, unexpected occurrence with broad consequences (Nassim, 2010). This article reports on an investigative survey which examines whether the national supply of trained elementary school teachers will be affected by the pandemic and to what degree. The survey results raise the possibility that attrition-related elementary teacher hiring will emerge as an issue for principals, school districts, and Human Resources (HR) staff in the near term. For the last four years there has been an adequate supply of Kindergarten to Grade 8 teachers across Canada. This situation is changing. In 2018, the national teacher unemployment rate for elementary teaches stood at 4.3%. From 2016 to 2018, the number of job openings for teachers began increasing at a slightly faster pace than the number of jobless. The number of unemployed teachers available to fill vacant positions declined. The hiring pool of available trained elementary teachers is expected to be small in most provinces from 2020 to 2028. Jobs for teachers will be plentiful while there will be a reduced selection of candidates for this in hiring positions. (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2019-2020). A teacher shortage has been declared for British Columbia and Quebec (CBC News, 2019; 2020). In Ontario, the situation is more pronounced. The Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) is predicting impending “English-language teacher shortages” on top of current French-language teacher shortages and “challenging recruitment years ahead.” (2019, p 108). The changing job outlook is the result of increasing retirements from an aging workforce and an increasing number of students entering elementary school. These are the children of the millennial generation. (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2019-2020).

Survey Details

The anonymous online survey was purposely confined to elementary teachers and elementary occasional teachers in one specific Ontario school district in the hope that the findings could be generalized to other jurisdictions. Quantifying the potential career decisions of an entire school district’s elementary teaching complement might allow other school boards to apply this data to their own contexts. The school district is not named to protect the privacy of the survey participants. There are approximately 1380 Kindergarten to Grade 8 Teachers and 715 Occasional Elementary Teachers in the district under investigation. The geography of the area includes urban and rural settings. The sample size is 225 out of the total teacher workforce of 2100, making the margin of error is approximately +/- 6.0% with a 95% confidence level. The composition of the sample is consistent with the demographic of the current teacher workforce. A slightly higher proportion of respondents are Kindergarten to Grade 3 contract teachers now that the children of the millennials are entering school, 4% of them are retirement age, and 21.3% of the complement has 20 to 29 years of experience and are on the approach to retirement. (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2019-2020). The questionnaire was posted in late July and early August on two private social media groups frequented by the sample teacher population. The survey was conducted following the Ontario government announcement of its September school reopening plan for elementary schools. The plan contains no class size reductions for elementary classes or requirements for children in Kindergarten to Grades 3 to wear masks. It provides limited guidance on how to modify long established daily school routines for social distancing (Office of the Premier of Ontario, 2020). There was a noticeable surge of posts on elementary teacher social media in response to the Ontario announcement. The posts signaled intent to resign, retire early, take a leave of absence, request a workplace accommodation, and a desire to continue remote teaching. The survey was deigned to investigate whether teachers and occasional teachers would formally commit themselves to these career actions and to gauge the firmness of the commitment. It is understood that the survey participants were answering questions “in the heat of the moment” and might well change their minds. 

Evidence of Accelerated Teacher Attrition and HR Disruption

The survey provides initial evidence that elementary school reopening plans – even without class size reductions – might precipitate staffing challenges and possibly teacher shortages which are already appearing on the horizon. These issues could include early retirements, unexpected resignations and leaves of absence, requests for workplace medical accommodations, and a large volume of applications to continue teaching remotely from home. Teachers in the surveyed Ontario school district were reporting concerns about teaching in person prior to school reopening announcements. On a previous survey of the same population conducted in June 2020, almost half of the 214 respondents (49.5%) indicated that they were concerned about contracting COVID-19, 25.9% worried that a pre-existing medical condition would put them of a family member in their household at greater risk of contracting the virus, and 19.4% were debating taking a leave of absence to keep their own children home. The government announcement appears to have crystallized these sentiments. The survey results are provided in Table 1 and Table 2. Here are some of the highlights: 

  • Slightly more than one half (51.2%) of contract teachers agreed or strongly agreed that they would like to continue remote teaching from a safe location and another 13.3% of survey participants, occasional teachers, would follow suit if that option were available. 
  • A majority of occasional teachers (73.8%) would like the number of schools at which they work limited and almost two thirds (61.6%) think the limited should be from 1 to 5 schools. (See Table 2.)
  • Approximately one quarter of the contract teachers surveyed (26.2%) would like to take a leave of absence and another 11% of occasional teacher respondents would do so if that option were available. 
  • Slightly more than one fifth of contract teachers (23.1%) indicated that they would need a workplace accommodation because of their medical history or that of someone they care for e.g., a child, partner, parent, or other family member, while 10.4% of occasional teachers would seek a workplace accommodation if they could qualify. 
  • Almost 13% (12.5%) of contract teachers surveyed stated that they are considering resigning and leaving the profession or retiring early, while an additional 10.5% of occasional teachers would resign or retire early if they could afford to or had the option in their contracts. 
  • The situation is more pronounced when the data from the full complement of contract and occasional teachers are combined. These results are obtained by adding Columns 1 and 4 in Table 1 are shown in Column 5 at a total.

Discussion & Conclusion

An important question is whether 20.5% of Ontario teachers are likely to act on their thoughts of early retirement or resignation recorded at one specific point in time. They may change their minds as they receive new information. Another unconsidered factor is the approximately 12% to 25% of “undecided” respondents. What career decisions will they ultimately make? Comparing these results to past data can provide some insight. Historically, 5% of Ontario elementary teachers resign annually, the vast majority due to retirement, early retirement, or securing a job with another school board (Clark & Antonelli, 2009). However, the percentage of teacher resignations and retirements has occasionally reached 10% as it did in Ontario in the late 1990s. Generally, only 0.9% of the entire Ontario teacher workforce leave the profession for another career due to job dissatisfaction (Clark & Antonelli, 2009). Based on these established patterns, it is conceivable that 10% of a district elementary teaching staff will resign during a pandemic. Only time will tell whether more than that follow through with their reported career plans. However, if more than 5% of Ontario educators decide to sit out the pandemic one way or another, the provincial demand for teachers could exceed the available supply in Ontario. (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2019-2020; Ontario College of Teachers, 2019). Teacher attrition, even if only temporary, would exacerbate the growing teacher supply problem in Ontario, possibly compelling school boards to aggressively recruit unemployed Ontario graduates from earlier years. They include Ontario-licensed teachers educated in other jurisdictions and Ontario education graduates who moved out-of-province in the teacher surplus years. Of the 6,555 Ontario trained and licensed teachers who began living outside the province in the last decade, 1,877 of them report they might return to the province (Ontario College of Teachers, 2019). These teachers might be induced to return “given conditions conducive to their return.” (Ontario College of Teachers, 2019, p 108). Ontario teacher recruiters, however, will be hard pressed to provide any incentives, financial or otherwise, to attract these teachers. There is a legislative hurdle. Ontario teacher hiring practices are tightly prescribed by Ontario Regulation 274/12, implemented in 2013. It is a province-wide, extended hiring process. Newly hired teachers work on a roster as an occasional teacher. With seniority they become eligible for long-term occasional (LTO) assignments before they can apply for full-time employment (Maynes, Hatt, & Mottonen, 2019; Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group, 2014). Some education analysts have suggested that it may be time to retract or amend the regulation. If Ontario school boards have difficulty filling teacher vacancies, they will certainly push for changes to this legislation. If the situation becomes pronounced, the provincial government may find itself considering increased class sizes, allowing faculties of education to increase the number of graduates or even fast-track their graduation, implementing emergency protocols for use of unqualified occasional teachers (Maynes, Hatt, & Mottonen, 2019). Given the similarity of elementary teacher supply and demand statistics across Canada, it would seem prudent for jurisdictions to keep a watchful eye on their own teacher supply and attrition rates as well as unfolding developments in Ontario. 

Edward Schroeter, B.J., OCT, is a newspaper reporter turned teacher turned education researcher and writer. Previous articles, research and reviews have been published in the CAP Journal, the Ontario Mathematics Gazette, Canadian Teacher Magazine, ETFO Voice, thelearningexchange.ca, and learningtrajectories.org. He is currently the Lead Writer–Grade 1 for the OAME-AFEMO Elementary Math Curriculum Resource Project. He is currently a Kindergarten Teacher by the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board in Peterborough, ON.

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