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A Teachers’ Strike over Back-to-School Plans?

The teachers union is working with government to make schools safer, but some teachers want tougher action.

Katie Hyslop 24 Aug

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

The BC Teachers’ Federation should be fighting harder — and even willing to strike — to make the province’s back-to-school plan safer, say some teachers.

The union raised concerns with government plans last week, urging it to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes and make masks mandatory for everyone 10 and older.

President Teri Mooring said the need for improvements is pressing, while noting the federation is continuing to work with government committees planning the return to class.

“We also see this as a real timeliness issue, and we have some fundamental concerns with the way the plan has been constructed.”

But teachers like Ian Weniger in Vancouver say their union isn’t doing enough and the push for pandemic protections should include a strike threat.

Weniger bases several demands on the advice of pediatric infectious disease expert Dr. Nisha Thampi: cap classes at 16 people, including students, teacher and any educational assistants; provide an online option; and hire more mental health counsellors to monitor the return to school.

And the federation should threaten a strike vote, like the Chicago Teachers Union did, says Weniger.

If teachers aren't prepared to take that step, he said, “then we are going to be telling parents that we trust that things are going to be OK, when really, we don’t.”

“There is a very strong chance that people are going to get sicker than they’ve ever got in B.C.”

The Chicago Teachers Union, upset with plans to resume in-person classes for two days a week when school resumes, announced a meeting to discuss a strike vote on Aug. 4.

Three hours later, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the plan was being scrapped and all teaching would be online this fall.

Teacher Leo Cheng echoes Weniger’s call for a strike vote. Cheng, whose elderly mother lives with his family, which includes a child with asthma, has asked the Richmond school district to allow him to work without having to be in a classroom this fall.

If that fails Cheng will take a leave of absence or even quit to keep his family safe from COVID-19.

“It’s not like I’m asking for another one-per-cent raise. It’s a pretty big deal,” said Cheng.

The ministry’s back-to-school plan “contradicts everything that the government’s told me is the right thing to do right now during the pandemic," he said.

“It tells me that social distancing doesn’t matter, somehow mask wearing isn’t important, we don’t need ventilation in classrooms and it’s OK to gather in big groups of hundreds.”

Tens of thousands of teachers, parents and other B.C. residents have taken to social media and online petitions to oppose the current guidelines. All 60 school districts are using these guidelines to develop their own back-to-school plans.

A Insights West poll released earlier this month showed 42 per cent of parents opposed the government’s guidelines, compared to 49 per cent in favour. But 70 per cent of parents said the back-to-school rules were not strict enough.

School district plans were due at the Education Ministry last Friday for review and approval. Districts are expected to post their final plans online Wednesday.

Currently the ministry’s guidelines call for students to return to in-person classes with contacts limited to cohorts or “learning groups” of up to 120 students, depending on the grade level. Two-metre physical distancing is not required within a cohort, and neither is wearing a mask.

Students in middle and high schools must wear masks in the halls, on buses, and when interacting with people outside their cohort.

Students with health concerns have the option of enrolling in existing distance learning programs, which have limited space, or do home schooling.

Students also concerned

If plans don’t change, home schooling may be the only option for students Grace Sinats, 14, and Ervin Cadiz, 16.

Sinats, who has “pretty severe” asthma and lives with her elderly, immunocompromised grandparents, starts Grade 10 in the Saanich school district next month. Sinats didn’t return to classes in June, and still doesn’t feel comfortable going into school.

“It would be useful if schools started prepping teachers to do online now, because Dr. Bonnie Henry has said that there is going to be a resurgence of COVID-19,” said Sinats.

“By reopening schools with no online plan, we’re leaving less time for teachers to plan for the future, like what happened back in March.”

Sinats is trying to get into the distance learning program in her region, but she is not guaranteed a seat. If she can’t get in, the Grade 10 student will be home schooling herself, as her parents don’t have time to teach her.

Cadiz, a Burnaby Grade 11 student, is not only concerned about the inability to physically distance from his peers and teachers in school but also about his daily commute on public transit. Like Sinats, Cadiz has asthma.

“It doesn’t feel safe,” he said of his district’s plans to reopen schools.

“I feel like there’s a lot of chances where I can be exposed to COVID-19, and it’s a little frustrating knowing I could avoid all of that by just staying home.”

Cadiz knows he would receive a better education in school than online — he attended summer school last month to make up lessons he missed during remote learning. But his health matters more.

“If they had mandatory masks, smaller cohorts and the classes were properly distanced, I would go — even though I’m not too comfortable with that — because I know I would get a better education that way,” he said.

Lots of options to reduce risks

Weniger says to keep classes small the province must spend money on hiring teachers and renting spaces like church basements, banquet halls and empty office buildings to hold classes. That’s being done in places like Denmark and Belgium.

This means more money than the $45.6 million the province has already promised to increase safety as schools reopen.

But Weniger says the province doesn’t want to spend more money.

“What it comes down to, as usual, is that our government needs to pay money for teachers in smaller class sizes, and that has been a problem for two generations,” he said.

Mooring is confident that working with the Education Ministry is the best way to achieve teachers’ goals.

But union members will get a chance to have a say at the federation’s provincial meeting on Friday.

“Obviously our local representatives from across the province will help us inform our plan,” she said.

“But we fully intend to stay at the table, working with government and the other education stakeholders, to effect the changes that we see as absolutely necessary.”

An emailed statement to The Tyee from Education Minister Rob Fleming acknowledged teachers’ and parents’ fears. But it says the guidelines follow provincial health and safety requirements.

“I know the global pandemic is unpredictable and families and teachers have specific concerns and circumstances,” Fleming’s statement read.

“We are aware of the issues raised by the BCTF, and a number of these have been addressed through our working groups. We will continue to work with teachers, parents, support staff and education partners on the steering committee on the safe restart plan.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Coronavirus

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