Quebec’s reckless rush to reopen schools may be dead, but concerns remain

Why has the Legault government been listening to corporate lobby groups instead of teachers when it comes to reopening schools?
Photo: Ivan Aleksic
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With the reopening of the first of the province’s elementary schools outside of Montreal this week, these are nervous times for Quebec’s teachers. While the Legault government reversed course today, announcing all schools in the Montreal area will remain closed until September, elementary teachers in the rest of the province have already begun experimenting with the impossible realities of public education during a pandemic. As teachers, we will all eventually have to face these realities.

What makes this time so stressful for Quebec teachers is not the fact that we will have to endure difficult conditions for the good of our students. Enduring difficult conditions is what we do. If we have avoided joining the 25 per cent of teachers in the province who are driven out of the profession in the first five years, it is at least in part because we have accepted that our job involves a certain amount of personal sacrifice.

For the vast majority, teaching is far more than a job — it is truly a calling that is ultimately about public service.

We endure being the worst-paid teachers in Canada. We endure working conditions made ever worse — and even unsafe — by round after round of austerity. We endure senseless bureaucracies that seem incapable of treating teachers or students as human beings. We endure our voices being ignored when in round after round of negotiations our unions demand that governments address the crisis of neglect for students with special needs.

Yet few are the teachers I know at the elementary and secondary levels who don’t work hundreds of unpaid hours every year on behalf of their students. For the vast majority, teaching is far more than a job — it is truly a calling that is ultimately about public service. It is an act of love.

This is why these are such dark times for teachers. Despite the government’s assurances to the contrary, the sacrifices teachers are now being asked to make do not seem to be about the interests of students, or even the broader public interest.

Herd immunity first, safety later

The first major sign that the government was basing its decisions on something other than science and the precautionary principle came in mid-April, when Quebec premier François Legault and the provincial public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, began musing about the benefits of COVID-19 herd immunity in their discussions about reopening schools.

These comments were made without any evidence that people who recover from the new coronavirus go on to develop long-term immunity, let alone a clear picture of the risks that might be associated with allowing the virus to spread through the school system. The fact that both Legault and Arruda repeated ad nauseum that children were at little risk of infection, while pausing only occasionally to consider those that children have contact with, sent a clear message to education workers that our safety was an afterthought.

The extent to which this government enthusiastically embraced the highly questionable strategy of using school openings as a step to achieving herd immunity was illustrated well by Dr. Arruda’s comments at a press conference on April 22.

Fortunately, complications in children are extremely rare ... and by immunizing them in a way ... a little naturally ... we help them in the end ... but we will not organize to expose, for example, teachers or people in daycare who have health problems or are older.

Yes, that is Quebec’s director of public health stating publicly that we help children by exposing them to the virus. And if that weren’t reassuring enough, how about the fact that, contrary to what it seemed to have planned for students, the government would not “organize” to expose education workers?

Flip, flop

After a flurry of highly critical articles, Legault and Arruda publicly abandoned the herd immunity theory. Suddenly the reason schools had to open was the need to help at-risk students.

But not a single new program was announced to help these students or their families now or in the future. In fact, the government announced its plan to reopen schools without the breakfast and lunch programs so many at-risk kids rely on. The government was apparently concerned enough about at-risk students to expose Quebec society to the risks associated with opening schools, but not concerned enough to even maintain the level of support these students received prior to the pandemic.

(The government’s concern for at-risk students seems to extend only to those who requires a parent to stay home from work. The mental health issues of more autonomous high school students will have to wait.)

This was the first of many messaging flip-flops, all seemingly aimed at sticking to the government’s premature plan to reopen schools.

Quebecers should be very concerned that the unions representing these workers have been kept on the periphery of the planning process.

Before the government acquired a supply of masks for education workers, we were told that these were not necessary for our safety. Then after a supply of masks was acquired, they became medically important.

Similarly, teachers over 60 years old were repeatedly assured they would be exempt from physically reporting to work because it wasn’t safe. Then one day it was safe after all. The fact that COVID-19 has killed Quebecers in their 60s at four times the rate of those in their 50s, and 13 times the rate of Quebecers in their 40s, didn’t change. Just the government’s rhetoric did.

What the bosses want

Since the announcement of school reopenings, Quebec’s teachers’ federations have been posing a lot of very good questions about how this is supposed to happen safely. They have also decried the limited input government has granted them in developing its plans. Since no one understands the conditions of schools better than education workers, all Quebecers should be very concerned that the unions representing these workers have been kept on the periphery of the planning process.

However, there is one group in Quebec that has had little problem giving its two cents. According to CBC, business groups have been meeting regularly with the Legault government. Indeed, Quebec’s lobbying registry has seen a 54 per cent increase in activities during the month of April over the year prior. At a time when government could not be bothered to meet with education labour leaders about how to keep schools safe, its doors were wide open to business lobbyists.

Not only are business groups getting access to government, this access seems to be paying off. On April 20,2020, Quebec’s Conseil du Patronat (literally “Council of Bosses,” a name that in itself represents a kind of lesson in Marxism) issued its roadmap for relaunching the economy. The plan hinged on schools reopening.

Within a week of releasing this roadmap, and in spite of hundreds of thousands of Quebecers signing petitions calling for schools not to reopen until September, the Conseil du Patronat got what it wanted. On April 27, 2020, it sent another release welcoming the government’s announcement that students would return to the classroom.

Economy or health

Premier Legault finally acknowledged these concerns and did an about-face, announcing today that schools wouldn’t open before the end of August at the earliest.

But all of this leaves teachers with the uneasy feeling that the sacrifices being demanded by government may be more about the labour needs of corporations than the interests of our students.

This sentiment was expressed well by a grade two teacher from Quebec City interviewed this week on CBC’s As It Happens:

I think they focus a lot on the importance of mental health at home and the importance of kids going back to school for that, but at the same time, sometimes I feel that, hearing them talk, the main reason we’re back is for the economy. If that is the real reason, it’s a bad one. … but I have to believe them and trust them in their decision.

Like all teachers in Quebec, I sincerely hope that this trust is not something we all soon regret.

Robert Green is a high school teacher in Montreal.

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