Teachers in Fort Simpson are struggling to find anywhere to live, a problem exacerbated by the impact of this year’s flooding on available housing.
Finding accommodation has already proved a barrier for incoming teaching staff. Failing to attract and retain teachers will affect the education Fort Simpson’s children receive, Mayor Sean Whelly cautioned at a meeting this week.
The village is considering whether to permanently acquire housing for teachers to rent. When a teacher using that housing leaves, the vacant unit would be earmarked for their replacement.
“We’re in a housing crisis, we’re post-flood, we’re dealing with teachers that have been brought into the community and are looking at not having a house after they get through their time staying in hotels,” Whelly said.
“We have to find out how those teachers are going to be staying here if we want our kids to be educated.
“We also know it’s unlikely that there are going to be accommodations opening up. Everything, as far as repairs and new homes in the community, is taking a bit longer than we would have hoped.”
Other options explored by the village include trying to access units in Fort Simpson’s newly built duplexes or vacant units earmarked for territorial and federal government employees.
Governments have been contacted to see how feasible those options are.
“It’s a pretty dire need,” said Kevin Corrigan, the village’s senior administrator. “Right now, we have a number teachers who have nowhere to stay.”
Councillor Muaz Hassan said some houses that could ordinarily be rented to teachers were damaged in the spring flood, eliminating that option for the foreseeable future.
Hassan and Councillor Troy Bellefontaine, who are both on the community’s district education authority, each expressed concern. Hassan said Fort Simpson spent four months trying to hire a Grade 2 teacher because candidates couldn’t find housing.
“If we don’t find a way to accommodate the teachers in the community, it’s not going to be the school board’s responsibility – it’s everyone’s responsibility,” he said.
Not a unique situation
Matthew Miller, president of the NWT Teachers’ Association, said the inability to house teachers in the territory is a decades-old issue that won’t go away.
Miller said the outcome is more work and stress for existing teachers when incoming colleagues have to turn down positions because they can’t find housing.
“It’s left up to those actually in the community to still get those jobs done,” he said.
“Instead of students getting specialized supports, those teachers are now placed in the classrooms and those supports that those students need, they’re not going to get them to the full capacity they normally would.”
Miller’s association conducted a study assessing the impact of the housing shortage on teachers. Problems extend beyond finding accommodation to maintenance issues, rental size, concerns about room-mates, trouble with leases, and an inability to secure anything beyond short-term housing.
The association has heard reports of schools trying to hire couples – where both partners are teachers – to cut down on the amount of housing needed for new educators.
“It’s not something we’re going to fix overnight,” Miller said.
“It’s not even an elephant in the room. Everyone knows it. If we want educators to come up here and stay, something different has to be done.”
Miller supports hiring local teachers but said that takes time, as people need to choose education as a career and get the training they need.
Other groups could benefit
If the village acquires units and any remain vacant, those places could be taken by people arriving to start other jobs or work on temporary projects, councillors heard.
Whelly gave the example of the Red Cross coming to the village to help with a community wellness project. In the era of Covid-19, he said, separate units may be beneficial for outside groups or could serve as an isolation space.
The mayor said if existing businesses who already rent spaces are consulted and don’t believe such a plan will damage their revenues, the village acquiring units could be worth the expense.
“We could still have unexpected things happen here and I think we’re not being prepared enough,” Whelly said. “We’re talking about it, but we should probably look at this like it’s the aftermath of the flood. We’re still experiencing it.”
Village council decided on Monday to donate $5,000 to the Líídlįį Kúę Elementary School to help purchase a fridge for students and support its school lunch program.
The same donation was made last year.
“There are a lot of families here that struggle. Children are the highest priority in the community,” Whelly said.
Corrigan said the village had only about $2,000 left in its donation budget but is projecting a surplus, so funds can be reallocated to help.
Bellefontaine said the donation would help families and ensure a healthy meal for students.
“It just makes school a little more exciting if you’re getting little treats, and we really need to encourage kids going to school,” he said.