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Our students and teachers are not guinea pigs

| Labour rights, Unionization

Shelley L. Morse

For many across the country, today marks week seven of this health and economic crisis. Seven weeks away from family, friends, and, for the majority of Canadians, the workplace. The emotional and financial toll this has placed on our population is hard to comprehend, and the pathway back to normalcy remains uncertain. 

Of course, we are all craving that day when we can gather and move about more freely, but not at the expense of health and safety. This is why, in its haste to kick start the economy, the Quebec Government’s decision to re-open elementary schools has sent shock waves throughout the province as the move puts children, teachers, and education workers directly in the eye of a continuing health storm. 

Quebec’s Minister of Education and Higher Education has made a high-risk bet in favour of kick starting a frozen economy, but that bet may have dire consequences, especially for a virus that feeds off of close contact and has yet to show any concern for our desire to move on from its scourge. 

Since announcing on April 27 that elementary schools would begin reopening across the province of Quebec on May 11, and on May 19 in the Greater Montreal Area, the ministry has been silent on how schools should prepare to make this possible. Repeated calls for clarity from the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, a CTF/FCE Member Organization, have gone mostly unanswered from government officials. 

Shutting down society as we knew it was done to protect the most vulnerable; the goal of flattening the curve of infections only attainable through physical distancing. We are now seeing that our collective response is bearing fruit. Rates of infection are declining and hospitals are able to care for those most affected. But this is only sustainable if we remain vigilant. 

The interruption of the school year was sudden, and came as children and youth were either preparing to return or pausing classes for spring break. The closures left families and guardians scrambling for solutions, and it continues to be a struggle as people navigate work and childcare on top of financial worry. But re-opening elementary schools safely, even with a mandated 15 children per classroom, is impossible. Anyone who has been around children knows that keeping them separated is a fool’s errand, so physical distancing be damned.  

Forcing education professionals and creating a situation where children carry the burden of risk, and are canaries in the coal mine, is not only unethical, it is dangerous. Schools are already breeding grounds for the common cold and flu, so what happens when scores of people return home with this new invisible menace? Opening elementary schools threatens to undo the progress made throughout our towns, cities, and all of society. We don’t want to erase what is nearing months of progress, to dismiss the herculean efforts of our frontline emergency workers, to declare that those who were taken from us were taken in vain. 

The moment will come when life slowly returns, when the shops and restaurants open their doors, when the parks once again teem with life, and when our classrooms are filled with the joyful sounds of learning. But until that time, we need to heed to this virus and continue our collective sacrifice for the health of others. 

Simply put, at this time, safe schools are closed schools. 

Background information

Shelley L. Morse is President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE), the national voice for the teaching profession. As the national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations, the CTF/FCE represents over 300,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada. The CTF/FCE is also a member of Education International, the global body of national education organizations in 173 countries.

Media contact

Andrew King,
Canadian Teachers’ Federation
Mobile: 819-213-7847