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A province-by-province look at returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Image: Marco Verch/Flickr

Summer is coming to an end and too many Canadian politicians are pushing through plans to reopen schools despite the dangers posed COVID-19 -- dangers compounded by decades of cuts and infrastructural decay.

Are we ready to go back? What are the administrators, students, teachers, education assistants, school custodial and administrative staff working in individual schools saying about the readiness of their schools to reopen? rabble.ca has always worked with people on the front lines, and right now we are amplifying what people on the front lines are telling us. 

If you want to participate in our (Un)Safe September initiative, please tell us what you think about having to return to school in September. 

rabble.ca will continue to support all efforts which help students and education workers remain as safe as possible.

Further to that effort, the Activist Toolkit has compiled links (organized by province) to help those of us who want to understand what safety measures provinces are proposing, and what education workers, students and parents are saying about them. If you want to support what teachers are trying to do to keep everyone safe as schools reopen, please contact your provincial government and your provincial representatives. The time to act is now. 

Alberta 

The Alberta government's plan has a mix of measures with no reduction of class sizes required and few clear mandates about cohorts, remote learning and other measures. Consultations with the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) ended abruptly in June, and were not resumed until a recent meeting with the ATA and other stakeholders.

In order to better inform the back-to-school plan, the Alberta Teachers' Association surveyed over 8,000 teachers and compiled a report of their concerns along with best-practices research to inform reopening options. As of now, the ATA is asking for a delayed reopening of schools and for the government to implement a plan to ensure the safety of everyone in schools. 

British Columbia

The British Columbia government's plan centres on creating learning groups -- up to 60 students for elementary and middle schools, and 120 students for high school -- and relies heavily on contact tracing and reporting of cases. This plan has been worked on extensively by the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF), teachers and other advocates.

However, many teachers and the BCTF are concerned that the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is not required within learning groups and masks are not required in public areas at all times. They also argue that many classrooms are too small to accommodate social-distancing needs for up to 30 children and therefore class sizes must be reduced. Here is a recent op-ed by Safe September BC co-founder Stacey Wakelin outlining those concerns.

Manitoba

The Manitoba government's plan to return students to school initially had no mask requirement. After extensive pressure from concerned students, parents and teachers, the plan was revised to add mask requirements for most students. The Manitoba Teachers' Society continues to raise concerns about safety and is working with teachers and parents to ensure classrooms are safe. 

New Brunswick 

In New Brunswick, the provincial election will coincide with the reopening of schools. The New Brunswick Teachers' Association has mentioned some concerns about class sizes in middle schools and other gaps in the plan, but, by and large NBTA president Rick Cuming has stated that "To date, I have to say that the return to school plan for New Brunswick appears to be better than the return to school plan for many of our neighbours."

He is encouraged by reduced class sizes at many levels and the regular involvement of public health in all aspects of the plan, and continues to work on finalizing details.  

Newfoundland and Labrador

The Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government plan has announced that schools will be reopening in September. However, class sizes will remain large and there are concerns about the strategy for transporting students to schools.

Recently, the government has been accused of dismissing teachers' concerns about reopening safely as fear mongering, which infuriated frontline teachers and school staff. The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association has been very active on Twitter, sharing useful information for teachers, and has initiated a province-wide online petition calling on government to ensure safe schools when students, teachers and other staff return in September. Please sign the petition through the following link.

Northwest Territories

All Northwest Territories schools have submitted plans to reopen their doors this fall for approval by the chief public health officer. Education authorities are working closely with the officer and are taking a flexible approach in their planning to account for a potential second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. The Northwest Territories Teachers' Association has posted no objections to the plans developed by the government.

Nova Scotia

The Nova Scotia government's plan announces schools will be reopening in September. The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) has stated that this plan is inadequate, and is working with healthcare unions and the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour to demand proper ventilation, distancing and public transparency about outbreaks in schools, among other things. NSTU president Paul Wozney has compiled reports and research related to the safe reopening of schools here.  

In 2018, the Nova Scotia government dissolved all elected English school boards, forced all school administrators out of the NSTU, and centralised a lot of the decision-making powers under the education ministry. Wozney is asking us to reach out with written questions to principals, vice principals and the Public School Administrators Association of N.S. (PSAANS) so that school staff, parents, students and administrators can work as partners in these difficult times.  

One of the main issues is with ventilated classrooms. Education Minister Zach Churchill was recently asked how the many older schools in Nova Scotia would stay ventilated throughout the academic year. He suggested that schools open their windows throughout the academic year. 

Find out why this solution is unworkable through this thorough analysis of the issue of ventilation by Jennifer Henderson for the Halifax Examiner.

Nunavut

There are no reported COVID-19 cases in Nunavut, so all schools are set to reopen this fall with enhanced cleaning and safety precautions. The territory says schools could go part time if contact tracing were to identify a possible source of COVID-19.

All schools would be closed if community transmission were to take place. The Coalition of Nunavut District Education Authorities says its biggest concern is how to comply with extra cleaning measures mandated in the plan since no additional funding is going to be provided for the extra layer of cleaning responsibilities required for schools.

The Nunavut Teachers' Association is also concerned about the lack of mandatory distancing measures in classrooms and the fact that teachers will be tasked with additional responsibilities with no additional supports. 

Ontario

The Ontario government's back-to-school plan has become the way in which the government intends to implement attacks on public education, which started early in the Ford administration. 

Ontario's four major education unions, including ETFO, OECTA, AEFO and OSSTF, are contending that the government's "Guide to Re-Opening Ontario Schools" does not meet requirements set out in the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. The flawed government plan does not take "every reasonable precaution" to protect teachers and education workers required under section 25(2)(h) of the act. 

Jason Kunin eloquently lays out in this op-ed why the plan's flaws are causing some Ontario teachers to update their wills. Work with the Ontario Parent Action Network, teacher unions and other advocacy groups to keep kids safe.  

Prince Edward Island

The P.E.I. back-to-school plan has raised many concerns about staffing and safety on buses. To date, the plan states wearing a clean non-surgical mask is highly recommended but not mandatory.  

School bus drivers in the province are represented by CUPE Local 1145 and teachers by the P.E.I. Teachers' Federation. Both groups are demanding better staffing and more supports for a safe return to school. 

Quebec

Quebec was one of the first provinces to publish a back-to-school plan. It was not in keeping with what scientists are now saying about preventing the spread of COVID-19, and caused unions and parents to push back. 

Much of this plan has been replaced by the recently updated version. The plan still stipulates that children without a medical exemption will have to attend classes or be homeschooled, but remote learning will not be accessible to them. 

Currently, a group of parents is challenging this stipulation in court. There were already significant teacher shortages, and a need for infrastructural investment and bureaucratic change in Quebec before the COVID-19 outbreak. Each of the labour federations representing teachers in Quebec fought hard against the June plan (which was roundly criticized by experts and the public) and, while acknowledging steps forward, came out against the current plan. Find out more about their positions below

Saskatchewan

Despite being littered with the word "safe," the Saskatchewan government's back-to-school plan is far from it. School divisions developed individual plans which are not all in keeping with public health directives, which led to the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation demanding better protections and more clarity.

The province has responded to pressure from advocates by delaying reopening schools by one week, and is now spending $40 million on supplies necessary for its safe schools plan.

Yukon

Most schools in Yukon reopened on August 20, based on the government's plan. As of August 20, Yukon had no active cases of COVID-19, with its 15th case recently recovered. The Yukon Teachers' Association has information available for teachers and parents who are concerned about safety, and are recommending that masks be mandatory for everyone.

We hope this summary information is helpful and ask you to check with teacher representatives, local authorities and activists for the most current information. Please let us know about any updates.

Image: Marco Verch/Flickr

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