Canadian schools – not safe to reopen – say union leaders

Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) members on a demonstration– they are one of five unions warning it is unsafe for schools to reopen

‘The current back-to-school plan does not provide the adequate level of safety required to protect students and their families from Covid-19,’ say union leaders representing Canada’s teachers and educational workers.

The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour hosted a joint press conference on Wednesday 19th August, 2020 on behalf of all union members who work in the education sector.

The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, spoke on behalf of all unions present at the event — CUPE, NSTU, NSGEU, NSNU and SEIU – representing teachers, education assistants, bus drivers, school specialists, admin assistants, nurses and other workers in the public school system.

It stated: ‘High among the list of concerns is the lack of proper physical distancing in schools, large class sizes, poor ventilation and inconsistent rules regarding masks.

‘There also needs to be a clear protocol in place to halt the spread and inform parents in the event of an outbreak at a school. Opening schools safely needs to be a top priority.’

NSTU president Paul Wozney, said: ‘We owe it to our children to get this plan right so they can be back with their friends and teachers in an environment where they can thrive.

‘But a plan that involves cramming 20-30 kids at a time into small, stuffy classrooms and opening a window doesn’t provide the level of confidence that is required.’

Nova Scotia Federation of Labour President Danny Cavanagh said: ‘The public education system is the largest, most interconnected workplace in the province and in a couple of weeks 150,000 people will be walking into schools for the first time in six months.

‘Given what’s at stake this is the last place where you want to be cutting corners in terms of safety.

‘Unfortunately, the government’s current school reopening plan falls well short of public health guidelines designed to protect families and workers from Covid-19 exposure.’

Nova Scotia Nurses Union President Janet Hazelton, representing nurses in the public school system, said: ‘Lessons learned in our recent experience with Covid – the most important being the health and safety of staff and those they serve – are critical.’

Nan McFadgen, CUPE Nova Scotia President, said: ‘A huge concern is that when it comes to occupational health and safety, the plan is silent,’

‘A well-thought-out plan would contain a series of controls such as plexiglass barriers, arranging work flow and people to minimise contact, and PPE.

‘Nowhere is there evidence of such planning. The actions proposed are only half-formed and often offered as suggestions rather than requirements.

‘Schools are ecosystems run by a huge intersection of different people.

‘There are students and teachers, but also a whole array of other workers, including teaching assistants and library staff.

‘The Province’s reckless approach to reopening places all of these people – and by extension, the community at large – at risk of contracting coronavirus.

‘Working people deserve basic rights to a safe working and learning environment.

‘That means, at a minimum, adequate social distancing and access to masks.’

NSGEU President Jason MacLean said: ‘The NSGEU was on a call with government officials yesterday and there are still many important details not being considered such as working with Occupational Health and Safety Committees to conduct safety audits of all work places.

‘The NSGEU stands in solidarity with all school workers who have the right to know the specific plans and actions in place to protect the health and safety of students and staff.

‘Government’s wait and see approach is not good enough and students, workers, and families deserve better.’

Meanwhile, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE), which represents more than 300,000 teachers in all provinces and territories, has urged all jurisdictions across the country to work together so that schools can reopen and stay open in a way that is safe and sustainable.

It stated on Monday: ‘We need a long-term strategy that goes beyond September, rather than rushing to reopen without adequate plans.

‘Delaying or staggering students’ return to school buildings will allow teachers and staff the time needed to properly prepare classrooms and common spaces, which is a better scenario than a failed restart.

‘Instead, the current reopening plans for schools put forward by the Provinces and Territories throw caution to the wind.

‘For months, teacher organisations have urged governments to listen.

‘Unfortunately, the advice of our profession and our sector has been largely ignored, silencing teachers and leaving us concerned.

‘Months of efforts dedicated to physical distancing, working from home, the creation of outdoor spaces for restaurants, and enhanced cleaning protocols all risk being undone by unsafely reopening schools.

‘It is illogical and completely irresponsible to accept that the rules successfully applied in so many places, which are the reason for Canada being in a position where it can reopen, are not being universally applied in public schools.

‘For public schools to operate safely, national standards on masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing, clean environments, and screening must be followed by all jurisdictions across the country.

‘The only way to make these requirements possible is to increase staffing: from teachers and support personnel, to custodians and bus drivers, and to also seek out alternate spaces where classes can be held.

‘All of these protective measures require adequate funding, and so far no government in Canada is willing to foot the bill.

‘But ignoring scientific advice in order to avoid investing in extra space, extra staff, and smaller class sizes that would keep children and teachers healthy and safe is a morally wrong and ill-advised economic policy.

‘A safe and sustainable return to school buildings is possible if we are prepared to pay for it.

‘As with childcare, the safe and sustainable reopening of schools across the country is key to keeping the economy afloat.

‘Investment in public education at this time is more important than ever.

‘Provinces and Territories have currently committed slightly more than a billion dollars in additional funding for schools to reopen, which in most cases does not even make up for the cuts of previous years …

‘Simply, we are saying that the return to schools needs to be done safely, from September through to June. Anything short of that is doomed to fail and will have repercussions for the entire country.

‘If schools are to remain safe sanctuaries of learning, 2020-2021 could be a school year for all to be proud of. If, however, corners are cut, and the necessary health and safety measures are not in place, the ripple effects of failure will be felt far beyond the classroom.’