As students from across British Columbia head back to class on a voluntary basis today, some teachers say their employer is giving them little choice but to return to work in what they call an unsafe environment.
This comes after at least 41 staff and students in Quebec tested positive for COVID-19 in the first two weeks after elementary schools outside the Montreal area reopened.
“I find it really unfortunate and very offensive, actually, because I think parents have the right to know [that] we can’t ensure that your kids are going to be socially distant all day in a classroom,” said one teacher from the North Vancouver School District.
CBC News has agreed not to name the teacher as she fears speaking out could cost her her job.
She has mapped out her class with measuring tape and says there’s not enough space for kids socially distance in it. Other than directional tape on the floor, she says, there’s no other means to help kids keep a safe distance.
The North Vancouver School District told CBC News that while the directive to stay two metres apart should be followed, “it may not be feasible and is not expected at all times in the school setting.”
The district added that classroom composition has been arranged “in thoughtful ways” with staggered schedules to reduce density with more time outside.
B.C.’s Ministry of Education said limits on the number of children “should help kids social distance.” For kindergarten to Grade 5, up to 50 per cent of students are allowed in the school at once. In higher grades, the limit is just 20 per cent.
The ministry added that some classrooms will need to be amalgamated to make up for some teachers not returning.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has dismissed concerns about schools reopening. “We know how to deal with this, we know that it is not easily spread, and we know we can prevent it by putting in place the measures that we have in our schools.”
Teachers seeking accommodations
Teachers who do not feel safe returning say they feel there’s little choice.
The North Vancouver teacher says her employer is providing little accommodation even for those who are immune-compromised. That means instead of getting paid time-off for specific circumstances, teachers who feel unsafe to go back, in some cases must go on unpaid leave or use sick days.
Nicole Jarvis, a teacher at the Ecole Salish Secondary School thinks reopening is a good idea but doesn’t think everyone should be forced to return to the workplace.
“I am deeply hoping that colleagues who have requested work from home accommodations will be granted so,” Jarvis said.
It’s something the B.C. Teachers Federation also has concerns about.
“It’s been a bit of a struggle, because the reasons why people are seeking accommodations [are] different under a pandemic, including child care being closed because because of COVID-19,” said Terri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation.
Mooring added that the problem of teachers being granted accommodation in a timely manner is that there is a much larger number of teachers seeking it in a very short time period.
But she said that “it is incumbent upon the employer to provide accommodations to members with appropriate medical information from their doctor to the point of undue hardship.”
B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson says not every person who doesn’t want to return to work will be accommodated.
“It’s just not possible, nor would it be the responsible thing to do,” said Higginson.
But she stresses that public health officials and scientists have deemed B.C. classes safe to return to.
No budget increase
The Ministry of Education said there will be no budget increases to support teachers or custodians for the June reopening, however according to Higginson and Mooring, districts are getting creative.
According to Mooring, since the pandemic hit and schools closed, some now have a surplus after needing fewer supply teachers and fewer bus drivers, for example. She says some of that surplus can be used for additional custodians and cleaning supplies.
Other districts have moved custodial schedules.
“We’ve switched the shifts so our night-time cleaning staff is doing the cleaning in the day and then we’ll have more of a skeleton crew on at night,” said Jarvis, who is also a union representative with local 36 of the BCTF.
She also added that teachers can ask the custodians for cleaning supplies if they want to do extra cleaning in high-traffic areas.
Teachers won’t be provided with personal protective equipment, according to their employer, but they are able to bring their own, saying provincial health guidelines say that hand washing and surface cleaning are more effective at combating the virus.