Various public school boards have reported that usage of sick days is on the rise for teachers and education professionals. Certainly elementary schools present an environment where many students come to school with illnesses that educators are exposed to because parents can’t take time off work to be at home with sick children.
What’s also not reported is that increasing incidents of violence in schools are a big reason for these absences.
Seventy per cent of public elementary teachers have personally experienced violence and witnessed violence, according to a member survey conducted by ETFO in late 2017. Over a third of the Federation’s 83,000 members have suffered physical injury, illness or mental stress as a result.
Since January 2017, ETFO has publicly called on the Ontario government and school boards to take steps to address increased incidents violence in schools. Educators are working with more students who have complex educational and medical needs. Additional front line resources are needed to support students with special needs and mental health issues. And school boards need to deal with violent incidents more effectively when it comes to reporting incidents and complying with health and safety legislation and policy. Our members tell us on a daily basis that some school board administrators prefer to ignore or minimize the significance of violence in schools, and some educators are even discouraged from reporting violent incidents by their employers.
In the absence of proper supports for students, educators are feeling the pain. While ETFO is trying to obtain more detailed data from school boards around violence in schools, rates of injury on the job, sick leave usage, etc., it is apparent that the nature of injuries educators experience due to violence, such as concussions and physical and psychological assaults, are taking a higher toll and requiring more recuperation time.
In short, educators are accessing sick leave because they need it. The increase in violence over the past five to six years is not just confined to education. Sick leave rates have also been on the rise in the health care and hospitals sector.
While Ontario has integrated children with special needs into public school classes since 1995, the province has never provided funding for these students based on actual need. As the proportion of students with special needs has increased in classrooms, there has not been a corresponding increase in front line supports such as educational assistants, psychologists, behavioural therapists, school support counselors, child and youth workers and speech-language pathologists. The issue has been compounded with higher class sizes in some grades.
While these conditions have unfairly compromised the education success of many students with behavioural issues, they continue to take a serious health toll among educators.
Confronted with an increase in violent incidents, school boards need to do more to report and deal with these incidents. It is not acceptable to discourage educators from reporting incidents or ignore the protocols set out in legislation and policies to provide a safe workplace for staff and learning environment for students.
Ontario has one of the most highly regarded education systems in the world and our teachers and education workers are a big part of that success. The conditions leading to a rise in violent incidents need to be properly addressed so that teachers can do the job that they are passionate about and students can reap the full benefits of what our education system can deliver given the proper supports.