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Coronavirus: B.C. teachers’ union applies to Labour Relations Board over back-to-school concerns

Click to play video 'BC Teachers’ Federation files submission with Labour Relations Board over health and safety concerns' BC Teachers’ Federation files submission with Labour Relations Board over health and safety concerns
BC Teachers' Federation files submission with Labour Relations Board over health and safety concerns

The BC Teachers’ Federation informed members on Thursday evening that it has submitted an application to the Labour Relations Board in an attempt to force changes to what it calls the “haphazard implementation of health and safety measures” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to members obtained by Global News, union president Teri Mooring said the Ministry of Education is taking advantage of teachers’ professionalism and the care they feel for their students.

Click to play video 'Concerns around COVID-19 positive cases in B.C. schools' Concerns around COVID-19 positive cases in B.C. schools
Concerns around COVID-19 positive cases in B.C. schools

The federation’s lawyers have researched any legal means they might have to challenge the “inequities of working conditions” and the “confusing changes in government messages” surrounding the province’s back-to-school plan, Mooring said, and have filed the application under section 88 of the Labour Relations Code.

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“It is a rarely used provision that we believe can compel the government into a labour relations process to address our many outstanding concerns,” she wrote.

“Critically, our application seeks to enhance the enforcement measures to ensure school districts take all possible actions to keep teachers and students safe.”

Read more: BC Centre for Disease Control to post all school-related COVID-19 cases

Global News has also obtained a copy of the application, which describes teachers as feeling pressured to work in unsafe conditions.

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“Teachers want to provide the very best education possible under these pandemic conditions, but the health and safety concerns are only growing with each day that BCTF members spend at their worksites,” the application reads.

It slammed the province’s idea to separate staff and students into “learning groups,” calling it simply a “contact-tracing strategy,” and accused it of distributing conflicting guidelines from the Ministry of Education and the BC Centre for Disease Control.

“As a result, some [school] districts sent home a checklist on Friday that included 16 COVID-19 symptoms, and another on Monday that included seven COVID-19 symptoms.”

A union spokesperson denied further comment on Thursday night, saying more details would be available Friday.

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Read more: Coronavirus: Teachers’ union urges B.C. to fix ‘inconsistencies’ across school districts

The Minstry of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Minister Rob Fleming outlined the province’s overall back-to-school strategy in July, with more details in August once each of B.C.’s 60 school districts had submitted their specific plans for approval and posted them online.

He has repeatedly said the measures are based on the advice of the provincial health officer and the BC Centre for Disease Control, and that he understands if not all teachers are comfortable yet and will continue to work with them.

Read more: Coronavirus: Back-to-school plans for all B.C. school districts now posted online

Masks will be mandatory in all districts for staff, middle school and high school students in high-traffic areas and outside their learning groups when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

Districts will stagger start times, breaks and lunch periods to reduce student interactions between cohorts.

Ottawa has earmarked $242 million for B.C. to spend on its return-to-school plan, which Fleming has said will go toward hiring additional teachers to support remote learning, enhanced cleaning, and better or new internet access in remote and Indigenous communities.

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Read more: COVID-19 confirmed at Surrey school, Kootenay-Columbia school board office

There have been at least 13 COVID-19 cases reported in B.C. schools since the school year resumed on Sept. 8, with four new exposures in the Surrey School District announced on Thursday night alone.