One year into the pandemic, teachers across the country are at a breaking point. In Quebec, they’re preparing to strike if things don’t improve dramatically.

There’s an exodus happening in Quebec’s public education system, teachers’ unions say, and the situation will worsen if the province fails to meet their demands at the negotiating table.

“Almost every day that we get calls from teachers who tell us they’ve made the decision to abandon the profession,” said Catherine Beauvais-St-Pierre, the president of the Montreal teachers’ alliance, one of nine teachers’ unions that make up the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE).

“The education system will cease to function soon if this many workers continue to leave,” she said, adding that many are burning out as a result of increased workloads under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unions have been in negotiations with the province since last January, and without a contract for nearly a year. The FAE, a federation representing close to 49,000 teachers in the province’s schools, is now threatening a general unlimited strike on May 31. Teachers represented under the federation’s nine member unions in five regions, including Montreal, have all voted to adopt strike mandates.

The last time Quebec teachers participated in a general unlimited strike was in 1972.

Two other major teachers’ unions in the province — the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers and the Fédération des syndicats de l’enseignement — are also threatening to strike for five days.

‘None of us work 40 hours a week. Most work over 50’

The province hopes to see teachers assigned more hours by their administration under their current offer, going from 27 hours a week at school to 32 instead, unions told Ricochet. The work contract doesn’t come with any guarantee that teachers would get an adequate amount of time for grading and preparing material for class, a task teachers say often goes unpaid after the school day is over.

“I have never met a teacher that works 32 hours per week, it is impossible,” said Marie Helen Nadeau, a kindergarten teacher at an elementary school in Montreal.

“None of us even work 40 hours a week. Most work over 50 hours a week over a normal school year.”

“If we start to invest in public services, by improving wages for nurses, daycare workers, and teachers, then we can actually have a feminist economic recovery, which I think is what we need right now.”

Having to constantly alternate between in-class and remote learning in particular has made the job more challenging, said Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, which represents teachers in the province’s English system.

“This has created an enormous amount of work for teachers. I would say that’s the number one thing,” she said.

The implementation of COVID-19 public health policies that can change from week to week has also added to their stress.

“All of those procedures, the organization, the sanitation … it’s cutting so much into our working time that could be used for other things,” said Marion Miller, an art teacher at an elementary school in Montreal.

“You’re spending your whole day speaking louder because you never take off the mask. Just the strain of that in terms of energy … Some teachers now have vision problems because they have to wear plastic glasses over their real ones.”

A 2015 survey released by the Interuniversity Research Centre found 25 per cent of all Quebec teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Yetman said this number has surely increased since the pandemic.

In the 2019-2020 school year, 201 teachers working in schools under the Centre de services scolaire de Montréal decided to quit or retire, according to a survey of school service centres by the Journal de Montréal. In the fall semester, 161 had already chosen to leave.

In the 2016-2017 school year, only 110 left.

“It’s sad when you see people who started off passionate about the job but chose to leave because eventually their job made them sick,” Beauvais-St-Pierre said.

“A general unlimited strike won’t hurt students as much as the current conditions in which they’re learning.”

In the 2019-2020 school year, Quebec’s education ministry reported 2210 unqualified teachers were working in the public education system due to shortages. There’s also been a shortage of other professionals who work in the education sector, such as teaching assistants. Sonia Éthier, the president of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, said low wages and a lack of full-time jobs are to blame.

“It’s dramatic what we’re living through, and the government hasn’t been flexible when it comes to their spending,” Éthier said.

Teachers in Quebec have the lowest salaries in comparison to those in other provinces, with a starting average of $44,993 according to Statistics Canada. They also have to work 15 years before reaching the top of their payscale, which averages at $80,917, below the national average of $91,930. This is not the case in other provinces, such as Nova Scotia, where there are only nine levels of seniority (years teaching) to pass through.

Prior to being elected, Premier François Legault assured teachers the first six levels would be eliminated so teachers could begin their career with a higher salary. The province is now offering to raise the salary for teachers at the beginning of their career from $46,000 to $50,000, without any cuts to the number of seniority levels.

Unions are still pushing for a reduction in seniority levels, and hope to see salaries match the national average, which sits at about $52,600 for those at the beginning of their career. They also want a salary increase of 2 per cent for the next three years to keep up with inflation.

“Teachers have lost a lot of purchasing power in the last 15 years, we never get up to inflation. That means that teachers are not contributing to the economy,” Yetmen said.

“If we start to invest in public services, by improving wages for nurses, daycare workers, and teachers, then we can actually have a feminist economic recovery, which I think is what we need right now. The pandemic has done one thing really well, and that is put women in very precarious places. We’ve gone backwards.”

The education ministry declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations.

‘Teachers feel like they’re on call 24/7’

More teachers across Canada have reported a decline in their mental health since the pandemic, said Shelley Morse, the president of the Canadian Federation of Teachers.

“We found 70 per cent of the 15,000 teachers we surveyed have concerns about their mental health and or well-being,” she said, noting that teachers feel as worn out now as they usually do at the end of the school year. “Many of the teachers talked about being June-tired in October, which was concerning.”

A survey released by the federation in November found one in three are “barely coping,” with the same number saying juggling professional responsibilities with their home life had become “severely exhausting.” Many reported a decline in their physical health, saying they’re struggling to exercise, eat a balanced diet, and stay hydrated throughout the day.

“Teachers feel like they’re on call 24/7,” Morse said.

They also encounter more risks on the job compared to other essential workers. Classes are often too small to allow for social distancing, and many schools have poor ventilation. Vaccines remain inaccessible for the vast majority of workers, and regulations for masking differ across regions, she said.

“It’s the height of recklessness the way they’ve managed this”

“In order to keep everyone safe we need proper protections, the same ones that we see in the public,” Morse said. “That is not happening in our schools, and this is the case for most jurisdictions in our country.”

In Quebec, 1,925 schools have reported one or more COVID-19 cases since Jan. 5, and 21,410 cases were counted among public and private schools over the fall semester.

Substitute teachers in particular have faced more challenges as they try to stay safe while working at multiple schools.

Due to a lack of communication between their school board and substitutes, Daph Ben David, a substitute with the English Montreal School Board, said they often don’t know whether the school they’re coming into that day is facing a COVID-19 outbreak, and instead they learn about outbreaks through word of mouth.

“I’m a public employee and I’ve received no directives for how to do my job in a public health crisis,” said Ben David.

“There’s no system to make sure people who are not permanent staff in a school are communicated with. That’s a huge oversight.”

A spokesperson with the school board told Ricochet this was the first time they had heard of this issue.

“We would not send a substitute into a problematic situation; nor any staff member,” Michael Cohen said in an email.

“Our protocol is probably among the best in Canada.”

A spokesperson for the education ministry said that under the province’s labour code, school boards are required to disclose to all of their employees whenever there’s been an outbreak in one of their schools, and this should include substitutes as well.

The federation has been pushing for more mental health resources for teachers, a reduction in their workload, and stronger safety measures from provinces and territories to improve working conditions in schools, Morse said.

In the fall, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec recommended classes in the province’s red zones be split in two to allow for social distancing among grade 10 and 11 students. A similar model has been in place in New Brunswick with grade 9 and 12 students since schools reopened. The province opted to alternate between in-class and remote learning for those students instead, so that they only attend school half of the time.

“It’s the height of recklessness the way they’ve managed this,” said Robert Green, a teacher at Westmount High School in Montreal.

More robust masking policies have been put in place in Quebec schools which is encouraging, Green said, but they should have been implemented at the beginning of the school year. Many teachers also stressed the need for rapid testing at schools.

Last September, the education ministry announced $85 million would be distributed across the province to help schools adapt to the pandemic by improving ventilation and providing additional training for teaching online. Out of the budget, $25 million was set aside for the hiring of more cleaning staff, psychologists, and other support staff.

“These funds have been distributed and received,” said a spokesperson for the ministry. “We continue to support school service centres by providing them with materials (to reduce the spread of the virus) and by reimbursing other expenses related to COVID-19.”

The ministry was not able to provide a breakdown of how much each school received under the budget, saying the amount each institution receives is determined by school services centres.

Teachers Ricochet spoke to said they had yet to see any new cleaning staff hired since the announcement.

“How is that the government can come up with money for the Cirque du Soleil, Bombardier, popcorn, and pipelines through Indigenous land, but when it’s time to talk about decent salaries and working conditions for nurses and teachers, for the women that are holding society together, there’s just no money?” Helen Nadeau asked.