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Teachers apply to LRB to avoid job action over COVID-19 safety measures

Last Updated Sep 18, 2020 at 12:29 pm PST

Summary

The BC Teachers' Federation is making a last-ditch attempt to avoid widespread job action by applying to LRB

The union is accusing the province of abdicating its responsibility of enforcing protections promised to educators amid

Education Minister Rob Fleming said 85 per cent is students in B.C. are back in classrooms

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — The BC Teachers’ Federation is making a last-ditch attempt to avoid widespread job action over COVID-19 safety measures by going to the Labour Relation Board.

The union is accusing the province of abdicating its responsibility of enforcing protections promised to educators amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

BCTF President Teri Mooring says the union’s application to the LRB is one of only a few options available to avoid job action for issues outside of the collective agreement.

“The health and safety guidelines from the ministry and the district plans are not the collective agreement, and so the ministry has failed to put adequate oversight and enforcement procedures in place,” she says amid rising concerns from teachers across the province.

Mooring says this means ensuring schools are following provincial direction on things like remote learning, PPE supplies, and mask-wearing  instead of walking away and leaving it to the districts to oversee.

“There’s no oversight, so it’s not happening. Classrooms are not being cleaned consistently. Teachers and students are not getting PPE consistently, so even the measures in place cannot be depended on in all situations. And so the ‘layers of protection’ that we keep hearing about are already starting to unravel,” she says.

Social distancing is also not possible in schools, she adds.

“How can we follow the rules being set in place for everyone else when we’re in a school system where a bubble of 60 is okay, and a bubble of 120 is okay?” Mooring said.

“We’ve been told us because it’s a controlled environment. It’s only controlled for contact tracing. ”

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Teachers want smaller class sizes, among other safety measures.

“We haven’t set class sizes at a certain number because we’re only actually interested in students being able to physically distance, and that’s going to depend on the size of the class,” Mooring says.

“We’ve been really careful to say we need to reduce classroom density to make sure that students can physically distance. They cannot right now, not by one metre, not by two metres. And so, you know, the common-sense safety precautions that are in place for everyone else are not in place for our children and not a place for our teachers, and that doesn’t make sense to most of us.”

The BCTF has requested this process be expedited, with the hope that talks will start soon.

Mooring says with the province leaving districts to just do as they choose, the promised hiring of teachers to allow for lower density in classes is not happening.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said 85 per cent is students in B.C. are back in classrooms, and said the province has hired 1,500 additional school staff overall.

He adds the hiring of 650 more teachers is ongoing, along with hundreds more custodians. He also says more ventilation systems and supplies are being purchased.

“I think it’s also a good thing to acknowledge that this is Week 1,” Fleming said.

He feels the first week of school went well and what he’s hearing about a lack of cleaning protocols being followed and PPE disbursements is unacceptable.

Fleming says the province will work on those issues, but isn’t providing a timeline for when they may be solved.

“The Surrey School District, for example, has invested in an additional $12.5 million just on cleaning staff, supplies and equipment for this school year. The Nanaimo School District has hired 25-30 per cent more custodians than they typically have on staff. We have entire shifts of new custodial staff performing daily, enhanced cleaning and overnight cleaning. Look, we’ve made a commitment to every partner, every local example that comes to our attention, that if there’s something that’s not right or seems to be at odds with the very strict health and safety guidelines that we’ve developed, collaboratively, all the partners under the guidance of the provincial health office, we will help chase that down and resolve it and that’s exactly what’s happening,” the said.

Asked about the lack of enforcement of masks within schools, Fleming said he’s not hearing that that’s the norm

“There is an abundance of masks in the school system. A lot of kids arrived on day one with their own. Districts have provided at least two masks to each student and will look forward to opportunities to replenish those as needed,” he added. “Those were supplied to all teachers and support staff as well. Face shields, we have over 100,000 of those in the system. So, I have heard some anecdotes where there has been some snags on distribution, but I’ve also heard that those situations as they’ve arisen have been immediately addressed.”

In terms of enforcement, he said the Ministry of Education guidelines are clear and almost identical to every province in the country, save Ontario.

“Middle and high school students are required to wear masks when they’re in common areas of the schools, outside of their learning groups, on bus transportation to and from schools — all of those situations.”

As for the situation with the Labour Relations Board, Fleming wants to leave that to the independent body.

While no outbreaks have been declared so far, several potential exposures have been identified by public health officials.