Unions representing teachers and bus drivers in Quebec are concerned over the government’s plan to send young students and children back to elementary schools and daycares in May as the province’s novel coronavirus cases continue to climb.
The Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, which oversees nine unions and represents more than 45,000 teachers, said that staff members will not return to work without adequate personal protective equipment.
Sylvain Mallette, president of the federation, claims that teachers were not consulted about the strategy and accused the government of using schools to build herd immunity to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“We will not accept that the teachers are not protected and that they will be on the front lines without armour,” he said in a statement.
The provincial government announced on Monday that elementary schools and daycares will gradually reopen starting on May 11 in most regions. The Greater Montreal area, which is where roughly half of the cases are located, will follow suit on May 19.
Quebec Premier François Legault said that young children are not at high risk for the disease and the province’s decision was made in line with public health authorities.
There will be a maximum of about 15 students per class and physical-distancing rules will be in place, but teachers in elementary schools will not be required to wear protective gear and neither will the students.
Legault has also stressed that attendance is not obligatory and that parents may keep their children at home if they wish. The province is also willing to adjust plans if necessary, he added.
Still, parents are facing a difficult decision: whether or not to send their children back.
“It’s really hard,” said Laura Bergeron, whose two daughters go to elementary schools in Hudson.
“I want what’s best for my kids but at the same time, I need what’s best for our family – and our family is at risk. I have elderly parents, my husband has asthma. So it’s going to be a big, hard decision to make.”
Other parents are worried that schools will have a tough time implementing social distancing rules.
“For kindergarten, daycare, Grade 1, forget it, there’s no way they’re keeping the kids separate,” said parent Travis Chalmers.
“Grade 2, maybe. Grade 3, 4, 5 and 6, I think they probably could — at least in the classroom.”
Despite the challenges, Legault insists that it is essential for children to get back to their normal routine.
“I think it is important for our children that they go back to school especially the ones needing special services, the ones having learning difficulties,” he said.
But parents say there are still many unanswered questions.
“If I send my kid to school, what does this mean? What does the day look like? What are they learning? What measures are in place that are going to ensure social distancing? How are you cleaning the school,” asked English Parents Committee Association President Katherine Korakakis.
“The same thing goes for if I make the decision to keep my kid at home. What does this mean for my child?”
The Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers argues the government should have held consultations before making any decisions. Union president Heidi Yetman told Global News her members will co-operate, but they have serious concerns about safety.
“There is not one other province in Canada that is talking about reopening schools,” she said. “And here we are. I live on the island of Montreal, in a hot spot of COVID-19, and we’re thinking about reopening schools in three weeks?
“It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
When it comes to social-distancing measures, Yetman said it would be difficult to ensure that young children maintain those rules in a school setting.
Yetman said she understands that youth are less affected by the virus but that if she had children in elementary school, she would question sending them back.
“I would definitely think twice,” she said.
Teamsters Canada, which represents bus drivers, said in a statement that it hopes measures will be implemented to protect drivers and children.
The union said it is not against gradually reopening and that it will participate in meetings with the education ministry.
However, it pointed out that many bus drivers are older and there are concerns about their health amid the pandemic. Many employees may not want to return to work over fears of getting sick, according to the union.
— With files from the Canadian Press