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BCTF not done fighting for school mask mandates as labour board focuses on communication

Last Updated Nov 12, 2020 at 7:29 am PDT

FILE (Lasia Kretzel, NEWS 1130 Photo)

BCTF says it is pleased overall with LRB ruling that creates new channel for complaints

Labour Relations Board will track ongoing complaints and flag major trends in safety concerns in schools

Multi-stakeholder COVID steering committee to see boost in involvement

VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) — Many teachers are feeling resigned over a B.C. Labour Relations Board decision about COVID-19 safety requirements, which stops short of mandating masks.

The BC Teachers’ Federation says, overall, it’s pleased that the board’s list of recommendations “closely reflects” what the union was seeking in its September application over “inconsistent and inadequate” safety protocols.

“All along, the K–12 restart plan was missing a mechanism to address failures in communication or required health and safety measures,” says BCTF president Teri Mooring, in a letter to members.

The ruling outlines a number of recommendations focused on improving communication between workers and the ministry, including increasing the role of the Ministry of Education’s COVID-19 Steering Committee and establishing a third-party group of neutral mediators to track and expedite concerns around safety.

“Effective Monday, November 16th, 2020, the Labour Relations Board will make neutrals available, including Vice-Chairs, Mediators, and Special Investigating Officers, to troubleshoot issues on an expedited basis, including evenings or weekends where necessary,” says the recommendation as outlined by the LRB’s chair, Jacquie de Aguayo.

The LRB says it will assign individual “troubleshooters” to assist in mediation when conflict arises over health and safety issues. The individuals will use a collaborative approach to sort out the facts and make recommendations.

The “troubleshooters” will have the power to expedite concerns through existing processes while the LRB tracks issues, promising it will flag recurring and consistent themes to stakeholders.

Some teachers have pointed out the recommendations lack teeth as any changes suggested by the third-party troubleshooting group would be non-binding. But in general educators and trustees are saying the ruling is a good start.

Stronger role for steering committee

The COVID-19 Steering Committee was established in September and consists of teachers, parents, Indigenous stakeholders, school trustees, and public health officials.

The ruling suggests the Ministry of Education hire a coordinator to liaise with the steering committee regularly about the unique safety concerns surrounding COVID-19.

It also recommends that before making any changes to policy, the ministry should share its reasonings with stakeholders, including the steering committee.

Existing channels for complaints, such as workplace health and safety committees, labour-management committees, collective agreement grievance arbitration, and investigations conducted by WorkSafeBC should remain the go-to options for complaints and concerns. But de Aguayo acknowledges COVID-19 concerns may no longer fit into those boxes.

“In the unique context of this pandemic, the named workplace partners in the matter before me, the BCTF and BCPSEA, acknowledge that there exist challenges that may not easily fit into one of these existing processes or there is an expeditious need for a process for clarifying issues and identifying solutions for them,” the ruling reads.

Not done fighting for masks in classrooms

The BCTF says it will continue to push for stronger mask mandates in schools, adding physical distancing is not possible in many classes.

“We have made our concerns to government clear that is unacceptable to treat schools differently than other workplaces. A stronger mask mandate, or at minimum encouragement from the government and Provincial Health Officer would help those schools that have had trouble creating a culture of mask wearing,” reads Mooring’s letter to members.

Mooring says teachers don’t need to wait for a provincial mandate to improve mask wearing.

“Many schools now have full mask policies because the staff, Joint Health & Safety Committee, or Administrator made it happen. You have a lot of experience creating norms. You know how to take charge of your own classroom. You can’t force students to wear masks, but you can model mask wearing and normalize it,” she writes.

The BCTF says it will also meet with WorkSafeBC to attempt to find pathways to improve working conditions, while simultaneously seeking an audience with the province’s Ombudsperson, Human Rights Commissioner, and the Representative for Children and Youth “to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts on children and learning in K–12 public schools.”