Quebec teachers hopeful but wary as students return to school after strikes

Click to play video: 'Quebec’s ‘common front’ public sector unions to vote on new contract'
Quebec’s ‘common front’ public sector unions to vote on new contract
After weeks of negotiations and strikes, an alliance of Quebec unions representing 420,000 public sector workers says it will soon present an agreement in principal to its members in the coming weeks. As Elizabeth Zogalis reports, the final step is for members to sign-off on the agreement – Jan 7, 2024

Montreal high school art teacher Marion Miller says she’s looking forward to welcoming her students back to class on Tuesday for the first time since her union went on unlimited strike Nov. 23.

“I think a lot of my colleagues are very relieved and happy that we’re finally going back in,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s been a very long strike.”

Major public sector unions reached tentative deals with the provincial government days before the new year, following a series of strikes that at their peak involved more than 550,000 workers in the education and health-care sectors.

And while many education professionals say they are glad the strikes are over — even as the outcome of the conflict remains uncertain — some continue to question their future in the network and whether their working conditions will noticeably improve. Meanwhile, the effects of the walkouts have been unequal, and teachers face the challenge of helping students catch up on lost time.

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Kathleen Legault, president of an association representing principals and managers at three Montreal-area francophone service centres — formerly known as school boards — says the strike could worsen existing inequalities.

Only one union — the Fédération Autonome de l’Enseignement, or FAE — went on unlimited strike, resulting in the closure of 800 schools for 22 days. Other schools, whose teachers are represented by a different negotiating bloc called the “common front,” were closed for 11 days; private school students missed no class at all.

Some students likely benefited from private tutoring or parent-led learning at home, but others may have received little to no education during the strike — or struggled with food insecurity by missing out on school meals, Legault said.

“We know that there will be differences between students according to groups, but also according to neighbourhoods,” she said in a phone interview. “So there are neighbourhoods where there is poverty, where there are challenges, where there are newcomers who are perhaps less aware of resources or who perhaps have less support from family.”

Legault says January will be an uncertain month for teachers, many of whom haven’t yet been told the details of government offers that have been tentatively accepted by unions.

Last week, the common front said its proposed deal includes salary increases of 17.4 per cent over five years; FAE members hadn’t received the fine points of their agreement.

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None of the unions have presented the tentative deals to their members for a vote, which should happen in mid-January.

Teachers with the FAE, meanwhile, have no strike pay and are likely seeing their bills come due, Legault said.

Another consequence of the strike, she said, is the effect on teacher morale: the bitter conflict has left some teachers feeling underappreciated and considering leaving the profession. “I think that the teachers will not forget this,” she said. “They did not feel considered, they did not feel important and we know that many are not sure they will remain in the education system.”

As for students, Legault said her organization is working with the provincial government to come up with a plan to help them catch up. Legault said she doesn’t think that plan will involve adding days to the school calendar; instead, she said, the province is considering making extra resources available to students who need them and prioritizing core aspects of the curriculum.

Education Minister Bernard Drainville announced Friday that provincial exams for primary and secondary schools will be delayed until late January or early February to give more time for students to prepare. More details on the government’s plan to help students catch up will be released Tuesday.

As well, most school boards have decided to delay the start of classes to Tuesday and give teachers Monday to put together lesson plans.

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Miller, whose union is part of the FAE, says it’s fortunate that students and teachers learned to be flexible during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw lengthy school closures and shifts to online learning. She says she knows returning to school will be hard for some, especially those with learning difficulties, but she’s hopeful the tentative deal will include concrete measures that make things better for students, especially those with special needs.

“Parents and teachers know that even when they were in school, those most vulnerable students, their needs were not being met just because of the understaffing and the under-resourcing of schools,” she said.

Félix David Soucis, president Quebec’s order of psychoeducators — professionals who help students with difficulties adjusting to school — said the return to class should be fairly easy for most. However, he said, it’s possible some could struggle with the transition, including those with learning difficulties, autism, depression or anxiety.

He said it’s important for teachers and parents to keep the channels of communication open with children and teens, and to be ready to direct those who need it to additional services.

Miller said her plan for Tuesday is to see how her students are feeling, followed by some fun “icebreaker” activities.

“I think we’ll just be very happy to see each other, and we’ll have to almost start over as if it was after summer vacation,” she said.


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