Union denounces boards' online switch

Yetman: "This is not a closure because of an emergency health situation. This is a closure because of a labour strike... and it sets a dangerous precedent."

While students get to hit the snooze button a few more times tomorrow, teachers around the province are hitting the pavement for an hour or so in their first strike action protesting the lack of a contract.

After a Quebec Superior Court judge sided with the unions that school boards and service centres had no business seeking a permanent injunction in court against the strike, teachers’ unions announced an action consisting of only beginning to teach at 9:31 Wednesday morning.

Teachers have been without a contract for more than a year, and are angry about the state of negotiations, as unions drop their demands for smaller class sizes in the face of Quebec’s refusal to address it, and instead focus on reduced workloads and wages. The government’s latest wage offer is a 5% hike over three years with premiums in years one and two, and a boost of up to 1% if inflation surpasses 5%. Teachers are asking for 6% over three years.

Yetman says teachers have had enough. “We are all losing” she adds, suggesting that in addition to a teacher shortage, more teachers are going to end up on sick leave or long-term disability. “The only thing the pandemic has done is make teachers more angry with the government.”

In response to the legal strike action, school boards have taken the unusual step of shutting down their schools and reverting to online learning for the day, outraging many teachers and parents.

In a letter to parents, the English Montreal School Board said the strike will have “major repercussions on bus schedules, daycare services, and logistics that could compromise the health and safety of our students” as the reason for going online.

That doesn’t sit well with many teachers, or their union. “Parents have to understand that emergency online learning is not connected to the pandemic,” says Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT) president Heidi Yetman, “and the school boards are using the pandemic decree, to move teaching online for the day. Which is basically, in our view, illegal.”

The Lester B Pearson School Board sent a similar letter to parents, as did the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board north of Montreal, whose message to parents was almost identical to that of the EMSB.

One parent waiting outside their children’s EMSB school Tuesday afternoon told The Suburban: “It's funny how the school boards couldn't get it together and get us online when we really needed it, and here they just flip a switch. It's like the pandemic has become a big stick as an employer.”

Yetman says it's important that the population realizes that teachers’ negotiations and the pandemic are separate issues. “According to the Education Act, instruction must be done in presence,” she says, “except for an emergency decree for health situations. This is not a closure because of an emergency health situation. This is a closure because of a labour strike. That's why teachers are so upset. It sets a precedent down the road that school boards can decide anytime to close schools and go online.”

Indeed, many acclaimed, appointed and elected school board officials were relatively silent throughout the pandemic, with the loudest voices being those criticizing the government, often hurling insults at various ministers and using less than parliamentary language to describe the current provincial leadership and its actions. Yet over the last year, there was much proclaiming about “having teachers’ backs.”

When asked if that was not what the community wanted, i.e., a school board administration not answerable to a minister and having the last word and control over its own system to do as it sees fit, Yetman says it's not true. “They talked a lot about it, but they never did anything about it. It's one thing to complain that we should be all online and that what the government is doing is crazy, but not one commissioner or set of commissioners actually passed a motion saying: ‘We refuse to teach in presence during the pandemic’. They never put on their big boy pants and said ‘we are going to do it’.”

The unions have authorized 5 strike days for the remainder of the school year, which means full days or several actions making up that same amount of time, which could mean many days of disruptions. Teachers will be picketing outside all schools Wednesday morning.

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