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Schools face staff shortages

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Ready, set, learn: West Pembroke School P4 teacher Ms Cheryl Stafford organises books in her class room yesterday in preparation for the first day of school today. (Photo by Mark Tatem)

Schools are facing teacher shortages as Government has failed to hire enough staff in time for today's start of the new academic year.Principals at middle and senior schools are understood to have been told that some vacancies will not be filled for up to three months.Sources say there are an average of three to five vacancies at each school and they believe the burden of “filling in the gaps” will fall on existing teachers. It is expected that classes will have to double up and teachers will have to give lessons outside of their specialist subjects.This has led to concerns about a decline in education standards as well as the possibility of teachers “burning themselves out” because of the increased stress.However, the Ministry of Education says they will address staff shortages by bringing back retired teachers and insist substitute teachers will be available.Government refused to give exact figures but said there were “less than half a dozen vacancies for September” plus “a few individuals awaiting immigration approval.”Shadow Education Minister Grant Gibbons said: “The consequences of the specialist teacher shortage will ultimately fall on students.“I've been told that shortages of specialist teachers due to red tape and hiring delays may not be rectified until as late as November in some cases.“In the meantime, the practical effect of putting the burden on existing teachers to cover classes and prepare lessons outside their normal areas will likely result in more stress, a lower quality of teaching, more sick days and possibly symptoms of teacher burnout depending on how long the shortages continue.“The net result is the quality of students' education is likely to suffer in the critical first few weeks of school due to the increased burden on teachers.”It comes after 96 teaching positions 10 percent were axed from Bermuda's public schools as the Ministry had its budget reduced by $12 million.This included 30 paraprofessionals on one-year contracts, 12 unqualified and unregistered staff, and nine Bermudian teachers on temporary assignments or one-year contracts.The cuts at Government's two senior schools were even more severe with 20 posts being lost at The Berkeley Institute and 27 posts at CedarBridge Academy.Sources tell us they feared teacher shortages because of the job cuts and accused the Ministry of “cutting their nose to spite their face.”One senior teacher told us: “Teachers have been told they have to cover for the shortages. The Ministry is refusing to provide subs and have told principals to rely on internal coverage.“This is not a good start to the school year. It is so sad as it is the children who will suffer.“Teachers are not happy, they are having to teach outside of their expert areas. It is going to be a lot of extra stress for us.”The teacher added: “Why does teacher placement take so long? It doesn't make sense. Everyone knew when the start of the school year was. Why didn't they prepare in advance?”The teaching jobs became vacant after the contracts of both Bermudian and non-Bermudian teachers came to an end.At the end of August a newspaper job advert stated the Ministry was looking for middle and senior schoolteachers for this academic year. It listed vacancies in mathematics, instrumental music, English, social studies, science and reading.Teachers say they were told about “the latest bombshell” when they returned to school last week and have been having meetings to try to come up with contingency plans.Another teacher said: “It's the same every year. They can never get the new teachers in on time.“There is always a wait but this year we are bracing ourselves for even worse delays. It's going to be bad and it's all because of the budget cuts.”Teachers are so concerned about the staff shortages that they look set to take it to the Bermuda Union of Teachers (BUT) stating that the additional work goes against their collective agreement.BUT president Mike Charles said the true extent of staff shortages would only be revealed when children return to school today.He said: “It is an issue as there are long delays with teachers coming in from overseas every year. We will await to see if this becomes a union issue.”Dr Gibbons said the cuts came as a direct result of “ineffective financial management” by the Government, which had resulted in a $1.2 billion debt burden over the last five years.He said Education Minister Dame Jennifer Smith was “yet to explain why most of the staffing cuts have occurred at a school level as opposed to the Department and Ministry level, where they would have less direct impact on the classroom.”It comes after the Ministry failed to announce the new principals of Clearwater and Dellwood Middle Schools until just days before the start of the new year. Parents, teachers and students were kept in the dark until the last-minute with the Ministry putting the delay down to “the necessary paperwork.”The Royal Gazette sent the Ministry of Education a series of questions regarding the staff shortage yesterday.A Ministry of Education spokeswomen issued the following statement: “The Ministry has less than a dozen vacancies for September and most of these will be resolved this week through a combination of exemptions under the Bermuda Educators Act 2002 and extensions for teachers over the age of 65. Finally, there are a few individuals who we await immigration approval.“Further, it is incorrect and untrue that substitutes will not be utilised to cover any absences related to these matters and, those substitutes will be versed in the subject matter of that vacancy.”

Shadow Education Minister Grant Gibbons