Alta. school division taking ‘wellness days’ for drained staff, students

EDMONTON — An Alberta school division is granting its staff and students some time to check in on their wellbeing, a practice the teachers’ association says would be useful to its exhausted educators across the province.

Holy Spirit Catholic School Division has cancelled classes Nov. 9 and 10, opting instead to take what it is calling wellness days.

Superintendent Ken Sampson told CTV News Edmonton he’s heard from principals that staff are experiencing increased fatigue and stress – anecdotes that have been backed by an increase in used sick days and staff absences.

While he noted the uptick is partially due to staff isolating after either being in close contact with a COVID-19 case or presenting symptoms, Sampson said the pandemic has added to their responsibility.

“We felt the right thing to do is to recognize and appreciate the work the staff has been doing that’s been augmented as a result of this,” he explained.

“To really say we value your work and contributions you’ve been making towards our schools and our students.”

The move has been applauded by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, who found in a recent survey 87 per cent of some 2,700 members are stressed and 92 per cent feel exhausted by the end of the day.

The study was the ATA’s third pandemic “pulse” survey since Aug. 28. Teachers have consistently reported extreme levels of stress and exhaustion since then, the ATA says.

Teachers have told their representative organization they are scared about bringing coronavirus home, that they’ve taken on between 20 minutes and an hour of cleaning duties, or that government guidelines are unclear.

“The complexity of doing health protocols for COVID-19 to make sure that we’re not seeing any spread in schools is exhausting, just on top of regular businesses of school,” ATA president Jason Schilling commented.

Other boards, he said, are considering having their own wellness days, too.

The ATA is also searching for ways to ease the burden on educators.

“We’ve been talking to the minister and other stakeholders such as the school board about taking some of the tasks off teachers and principals at schools,” Schilling told CTV News Edmonton.

“Why are we doing standardized testing this year? … Let’s get rid of that. Teachers also need support to deal with health protocols at schools such as cleaning throughout the course of the day. It’s eating up so much of their day, they’re not even getting lunch for the most part.”

According to Sampson, there has been some pushback from Holy Spirit families over childcare, but feedback has mostly been positive.

“They are grateful for us recognizing the fact that students like teachers are in very trying times and they need to pause and put things on hold for a little bit.”

Schilling suggested schools give families as much notice as possible, and families to “look at the benefit” of wellness days.

“We want schools to stay open and don’t want teachers to get super exhausted or to a point where they’re not well anymore and they can’t go to work.”

About 86 per cent of those who took the ATA survey said they were somewhat to extremely concerned about contracting COVID-19 in future months.

Nearly eight in 10 said they were at least somewhat concerned about their schools’ ability to prevent and control the spread of the disease if a positive case was found in their community.

At the time of the survey, nine per cent of Alberta schools were reporting at least one case of COVID-19. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Carlyle Fiset 

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