Annual Ontario School Survey results reveal lack of action on challenges
Principals feel they have been “left to fend for themselves”
Findings from People for Education’s 2021-22 Annual Ontario School Survey (AOSS) show that there has been little or no respite for educators in the second year of the pandemic. The issues that students and educators were facing in 2020-21 remain relatively unchanged, and the magnitude and urgency of these issues have only grown.
This year, the results of the AOSS will be released through a series of 4 thematic reports, the first one being on the impact of COVID-19 on Ontario’s publicly funded schools. The findings in this report are based on responses from 965 principals across Ontario, representing 70 of the 72 publicly funded school boards in the province.
A “fail to fill” staffing situation for Ontario’s publicly funded schools
In their responses, 90% of principals named staffing shortages as a top challenge. They reported issues coordinating staffing, filling absences, and they pointed to safety concerns caused by fewer staff, and that the lack of adequate staff takes a toll on the teachers who are now expected to do more in their very limited time.
The staffing crisis is the result of a compounding impact of increasing the length of the teacher education program to two years, cutting admissions to teachers’ faculties by 50%, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding for staff during the pandemic was initially augmented by the federal government and by increased funding from the province. That level of funding did not continue into the 2021-22 school year.
Principals have been pushed to their limits
“These past two years have by far been the most difficult—leading and managing in a pandemic. I know there are no easy answers or solutions, but administrator burnout is real and it’s something that needs to be addressed.”
– Elementary school principal, GTA
In this year’s survey, 51% of principals reported that they disagreed or strongly disagreed that their recent levels of stress at work feel manageable. In their comments, principals pointed to the lack of supports on all fronts — administrative, funding, safety resources, communication from the government — and how this has taken a toll on their well-being and the capacity to do their jobs.
Supports missing for student and staff mental health and well-being
Only 43% of principals agreed with the statement “My school has the resources necessary to support the mental health and well-being of its students.” The response was even lower when asked the same question about support for staff mental health and well-being with only 35% of principals agreeing necessary supports were available for staff.
While a high proportion of principals did report having the option to connect virtually with mental health and wellness support workers, they also highlighted drawbacks of this model. For example, one elementary principal in the GTA explained, “This type of model does NOT work for our students and families. Many families experience multiple systemic barriers (e.g., poverty, non-English speaking, health issues, lack of access to tech, etc.).”
Hybrid learning challenges
This year, 27% of elementary principals and 47% of secondary principals said they are responsible for hybrid schools. In the case of elementary schools, that is more than double the proportion last year.
In these schools, teachers are simultaneously teaching students learning in-person and online. In their comments, most principals responding to the AOSS, said that the model was unworkable. One said it was “like teaching swimming and rock climbing in the same class.”
The hybrid model was intended to provide flexibility for families and for school boards. However, principals have called it “the most difficult task assigned to teachers to date”. Some of the challenges inherent in this model included increased workloads, stress, and anxiety for educators; a decreased capacity to support students with special needs or disabilities and lower rates of student attendance, participation, and engagement.
Ongoing communication and implementation issues
“Having to figure out what is happening, and next steps based on what CP24 and other news outlets share with us is not a great way to lead.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
In last year’s survey, principals pointed to the lack of communication between the Ministry of Education and schools as an ongoing challenge. One year later, no progress appears to have been made on this front.
The consistent lack of consultation and communication between the government and school leaders, despite the numerous recommendations that have been made to include education stakeholders in decision-making, has left many principals feeling overlooked, overworked, and undervalued.
People for Education’s recommendations
At the end of the first full year of the pandemic in 2021, principals had four key recommendations:
- Consult stakeholders before policy implementation
- Communicate changes in advance
- Fund additional staffing
- Broaden access to technology
One year later, the findings from AOSS 2021–22 are clear: there has been little response to the previous calls for action. According to the principals responding to this year’s AOSS, the lack of action has exacerbated what was already a deeply challenging situation.
Once again in this year’s report, People for Education is calling for increased support for schools, staff, and students. They need to be supported by a concise and comprehensive plan to offset the disruptions, stress, and damage that education systems have endured over the past two years. Last year’s recommendations – for consultation, communication, funding, and increased access to technology – need to be part of a comprehensive and clear plan to manage, assess, and respond to the educational impacts of COVID-19.
This report also points to serious issues with the hybrid model, now in use in one third of Ontario schools. With the provincial announcement that virtual schooling must continue to be offered as an option to all families in the coming school year, the report makes it clear that the challenges of hybrid teaching and learning must be addressed. It is critical for both policy-makers and school boards to consider the experiences and expertise of school staff when re-evaluating the use of hybrid learning, and the implications of these modes of learning on different populations.
Read the report