April 17, 2020

The Right to Education During the Pandemic

Teachers and Education Workers
Sorting Out What Is What

What Criteria Should Determine Whether Schools Reopen
or Not?
- Geneviève Royer
Education Is a Right Podcast Episodes on Education and the
COVID-19 Pandemic

The Right to Housing During the Pandemic
Decent and Affordable Housing Is Required to Ensure the Health and
Safety of All

Housing Rights Organizations Speak Out
Call for Immediate Action to House All Unhoused BC Residents
Housing, Front Line Defence Against COVID-19, Says United Nations
Special Rapporteur

The Right to Education During the Pandemic

Teachers and Education Workers
Sorting Out What Is What

Teachers and education workers across Canada, like others around the world, have been thrust into a new environment for teaching as a result of the closure of schools to curb the spread of COVID-19. Moving classes online has now become the norm at all grade levels. A big problem is that teachers and education workers want to work out how to affirm the right to education under the circumstances but are blocked from doing so because they are not being given a real say in how things proceed. Instead, they are told just to be flexible and accommodating, which translates into not speaking up when there are problems or just being critics of what is imposed on them from school boards or provincial governments. Teachers and education workers are the most flexible and accommodating when it comes to ensuring their students get the education they require. However, this does not translate into accepting measures that harm their own working conditions that they know are students' learning conditions.

It is a challenge under the circumstances to have discussion on what is taking place. One issue is to have our own perspective so as not to get overwhelmed by all the emphasis on technology and competing companies all vying to be used for delivering education in hopes of coming out on top. Each province, and even each school board, has different content delivery systems they use. As a result, there is not a common approach nor any intention to have one. From one school to the next, the approaches are different. There are also the many education related "apps" -- that are now free in many cases -- that are pushing to get everyone to sign up and use them in hopes of becoming the next big thing.

A major issue of concern for teachers and education workers is how to ensure that those youth with special needs in the classroom or challenging personal situations are not permitted to fall through the cracks in these circumstances where they lack the resources they require to participate in education. The reality of moving to online learning in one fell swoop without an organized plan to ensure that all students, teachers and education workers have the infrastructure they require so that they can fully participate in the process, was largely left up to individuals and to chance. When governments declared the closing of schools, things had not been put in place to guarantee all families had the necessary equipment, in the quantities they require, and adequate internet and technology know-how to navigate this new "classroom" space, let alone guarantee that families had the necessary supports for difficult personal or financial situations where basic needs were already tenuous before schools were closed.

Students in Grade 12 have been put into additionally challenging situations during their graduating year. Universities in Ontario, for example, continue to demand mid-term marks by April 20 to determine initial admission offers. However, this is an unrealistic demand, given that marks would only reflect in-class work up until March 13. Students and educators are concerned that the current situation will exacerbate the fact that students with greater resources and supports will have better chances to get into universities of their choice. How to affirm the right to education under the circumstances is not so straightforward. For example, should students be given a pass/fail mark? How does this affect getting into post-secondary education?

The starting point of sorting out any of these problems must be that education is a right, not a competition to divide society. Investments are required to ensure all youth continue to advance in their education and get the formation they require to make a contribution to society. First and foremost, this means investments in having more teachers and education workers to support the system as teachers, tutors and teaching assistants and others who provide specialized supports to students with high needs so that everyone can be supported under the circumstances. It also means teachers and education workers empowering themselves to put forward solutions that uphold the right to education in practice.

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What Criteria Should Determine Whether
Schools Reopen or Not?

Schools in Quebec in what is referred to as the public education system have been closed since March 13. The nearly 105,000 teachers employed by school boards (now service centres) went into action right away to help curb the pandemic and participate in or initiate online activities to interact with their students, provide school lessons, respond to parents' questions, organize solo improvs and online music lessons, and so much more.

On April 10, without any consultation with teachers and their union organizations, Premier François Legault launched a trial balloon to the effect that schools could reopen before May 4. This is the practice of launching a measure that workers have had no input in, then changing position if it is deemed unacceptable, while keeping the same goal in mind. That explains why Premier Legault tweeted that same day: "I repeat that any opening of schools will be done with the agreement of Public Health. We won't rush into any decision."

It's unacceptable, to say the least, that such bombs are dropped within this period of intense stress. To then reduce the issue of whether schools will be reopened to a matter of whether or not Public Health is in agreement, while each and every day we are confronted with the fact that basic public health criteria cannot be applied in the CHSLDs (residential and long-term care centres) due to a lack of personnel, inspires no confidence at all about things having been taken in hand. Neither Legault, the Director of Public Health nor the Minister of Health and Social Services have enumerated the measures taken in schools since they were closed, or those to be taken once they reopen. So it comes as no surprise that a petition asking that schools not reopen for several weeks, launched on April 10, was signed by over 185,000 people in four days.

Measures must therefore be taken to ensure the health of education workers and their students. Working in a school comes with an entire range of social interaction for teachers, students, secretaries, security guards, educators, workers and caretakers, librarians, cafeteria staff, etc. All these people, even before setting foot in the schools each morning, have been in contact with other people.

Teachers and their colleagues are also reflecting upon their return to the classroom. One of the pandemic's lessons for them is that there's no going back to the status quo. Teachers have been holding up the public education system for over 20 years. They are taking up their social responsibility and demanding a say in the conditions required so that schools can be reopened.

It must be remembered that the crisis in the education system predates the pandemic. For years teachers have been asking for a reduction in the student-to-teacher ratio, that the number of hours worked by nurses, social workers, psychologists and other educators, including those devoted to cleaning and sanitation, be sufficient in each school to respond to the needs of students. Such demands, in addition to creating an atmosphere that supports mental health, are now seen to help prevent the transmission of infections.

People frequenting schools have witnessed and fallen prey to a deterioration in public hygiene during the more than 20 years of the anti-social offensive. Examples can be cited, such as the presence of lead in tap water, of mold, of the uncertainty about air quality, etc. This, coupled with the decrease in the number of hours allocated for maintenance renders schools fertile ground for the spread of disease. In 2015, for example, the Ministry of Health and Social Services published the criteria for the maintenance of school surfaces and objects, such as that desks, work tables, shared computer keyboards and mice must be cleaned at the end of each day.[1] The reality is that in many of the schools, classroom desks are only cleaned once a year and computer equipment only slightly more often! Even more worrisome is the fact that neither the Minister of Health nor the Director of Public Health in Quebec exercised their authority, on April 10 or since, to inform the population about what they intended to do to ensure that the requirements for hygiene and social distancing take a practical form in schools.

Mr. Legault, by reopening schools, you are declaring that education workers are essential workers. Fine! Then be advised that teachers will not in any way place their health and that of their families at risk. Based on the premise that teachers and other school staff must be at the heart of the conditions for the reopening of schools, here are some steps that must be taken to be consistent and responsible in this period of the pandemic:

- Social distancing measures: there are 1,210,699 students spread out over 2,725 Quebec public education institutions. This represents an average of 444 students per establishment. Elementary schools have up to 1,600 students, and high schools as many as 2,700. This does not take into account the teaching and non-teaching staff working in these schools. Therefore, human and physical resources must be considered to ensure that the two-metre separation is respected.

- Different schedules so that there are fewer students in classrooms (with everyone separated by an empty desk) and circulating throughout the school. Encourage the setting up of a sanitary station at the school's entrance through one door and the exit at a separate door;

- Application of public hygiene measures: presence of maintenance personnel with adequate equipment for each classroom, as sinks are only available in washrooms;

- Psychological support for students, as our students have been under stress for months and they must have access to resource persons on site;

- Providing information in the language of our recently arrived immigrant students;

- Regular screening tests for education workers and students;

- Access to child care for school personnel;

- Provision of measures for public transit, as ridership will increase. The same goes for adapted transportation for students with a disability.

Geneviève Royer is a leader of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Quebec (PMLQ) and has been a high school teacher for over 25 years.


1. Prévention et contrôle des infections dans les services de garde et écoles du Québec - annexe 4, MSSS [Infection Prevention and Control in Quebec Daycares and Schools - Appendice 4, MSSS, French only]

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Education Is a Right Podcast Episodes on
Education and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Using the internet and social media, teachers and education workers are working to organize themselves, find their bearings and establish their own frames of reference for how to proceed. As things unfold, they are working out how to intervene to ensure that matters are resolved in favour of the right to education.

The podcast Education Is a Right has published six episodes dealing specifically with how teachers and education workers are orienting themselves to implement online learning and how to affirm their rights to proper wages and working conditions under the circumstances. The podcast is also informing its audience about how other countries such as China have dealt with the pandemic in education to contribute to working out what is what here.

To listen to the podcasts, click here

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The Right to Housing During the Pandemic

Decent and Affordable Housing Is Required to Ensure the Health and Safety of All

 Quebec Premier Legault during his daily press briefing on March 25, addressed the issue of rents due on April 1. He said that he was open to quick suggestions for households struggling to pay their groceries and that are worried about rent payments. He asked tenants to ensure they contact their landlords to make an arrangement, and called on landlords to "show understanding."

It's no secret that even before the pandemic there was a huge lack of affordable, sanitary and accessible housing in many Quebec cities. For years, housing rights organizations have been reporting the low vacancy rate and the abandonment of social housing construction by governments. Nearly 457,500 tenant households already spend more than the standard 30 per cent of their income on rent, including 195,645 who spend over 50 per cent. With the pandemic, a loss of employment could result in finding oneself on the street.

The Premier's statement in no way addresses the concerns of organizations and families who are asking for concrete arrangements with regard to rent payments. This issue cannot be left to the whims of landlords. Knowing that a significant number of Montreal dwellings, amongst other properties, are owned by large private real estate firms, that these landlords are unreachable and that the only person a tenant can talk to is often a janitor, who is there to apply the guidelines they have been given in order to keep their job, the government's response must be a very different one. Within the context of the pandemic, the confinement period and massive job losses, measures must be taken on a national scale so that no one is left on their own, and to ensure that all Quebec tenants are protected. It's a matter of taking responsibility so that no one has to put their health at risk as a result of financial difficulties, or that they must choose between feeding their family, taking care of them or paying their rent.

Having decent, sanitary and affordable housing is part of the necessary living conditions required to take care of one's family and children. When over 30 per cent of income is spent on rent, one's living conditions are unsustainable.

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Housing Rights Organizations Speak Out

Since the end of March, various advocacy organizations have proposed concrete measures to help tenant households unable to pay the next few months' rent. They have not accepted Premier Legault's response asking that landlords be "understanding" towards tenants who could not pay their rent on April 1 nor will not be able to do so on May 1 either. Such arrangements cannot be left in the hands of individuals, as there are many numbered companies in the real estate business that would be reluctant about waiting for rent payments, they say. They are calling upon the government to take action.

The Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), which has been active for over 40 years in defence of the right to housing, has put forward the following demands for Quebec government action:

- prohibit any eviction attempt as a result of non-payment of rent for April 2020 (as well as for each additional month declared as a health emergency);

- more broadly, suspend all hearings at the Régie du logement (rental board) as well as the enforcement of decisions leading to the eviction of tenants, until confinement measures are lifted and tenants are again able to pay their rent;

- extend by one month the period available to tenants to respond to their lease renewal notice;

- consider that all existing leases be extended for a period corresponding to at a minimum the duration of the health emergency;

- establish an emergency rent supplement program for low-income tenant households.

Regarding the federal government, FRAPRU goes on to say that "For its part, the Trudeau government should:

- establish a special emergency fund to assist tenants unable to pay all or part of their rent;

- provide the money needed for the repair of existing social housing units funded in the past by (the federal) government that are currently boarded up because of the state of their disrepair."

The federation of Quebec seniors FADOQ, which represents more than 535,000 people over the age of 50, also expressed its concerns on April 3 about the rent increases imposed on seniors living in private seniors' residences (RPPs). It is calling for "all rent increase notices to be postponed to a later date [and] that no incidental fees be charged to seniors living in RPPs related to preventive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19."

"We've received numerous reports from our members about this. [...] The current situation means that tenants cannot get in-person assistance from CAAPs [Quebec complaint support and accompaniment centres], said FADOQ Network President Gisèle Tassé-Goodman.

On April 1, a letter signed by 34 lawyers and law students published in the newspaper Le Droit stressed that the defence of human dignity is at the heart of these demands:

"For the reasons listed and in light of elementary considerations of human dignity, we, the undersigned jurists, lawyers and law students, are asking for a cancellation of rents directly affected by the health crisis, at least for April and May 2020, as well as material or financial assistance measures that will allow everyone -- tenants and landlords alike -- to provide themselves with the goods necessary for living and so that they are not penalized at the end of the crisis as a result of having cumulatively defaulted on payments."

"We feel that it would be advantageous for the context to be used for the emergence of lasting and sustainable solutions to a housing crisis and the chronic precariousness of tenants that predates the pandemic. Rising to the occasion also means showing political courage and laying the foundations for a fairer society in the long term," the lawyers, jurists and law students added.

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Call for Immediate Action to House
All Unhoused BC Residents

A number of organizations that advocate on behalf of people who are homeless and extremely vulnerable in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, wrote to BC provincial government Ministers, BC Housing & the Vulnerable Populations Working Group, British Columbia Mayors and Councillors, and British Columbia Chief Health Officer Bonnie Henry on April 9. In the letter they outlined their demands for emergency housing for "all unhoused and inadequately housed residents in British Columbia."

The letter reads, in part:

"We write to request immediate action to address the threat of COVID-19 for people who are unhoused and inadequately housed in British Columbia. The important actions to date are simply not sufficient to protect the health and safety of people who are unable to engage in physical distancing or self-isolation for lack of self-contained housing.

"The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing calls the refuge of a home the 'front line defence' against COVID-19. Public health directives across Canada are clear that 'staying home' is the primary way to protect both personal and public health in this epidemic. As you are well-aware, for those who have been denied access to basic housing, income, and social supports -- these directives are impossible to follow."

In reference to actions taken by the provincial government to date, the advocates point out that "since the start of this emergency the Province has only acquired some 900 spaces for unhoused people to physical-distance, self-isolate and quarantine -- this when we know there is a bare minimum of 7,655 unhoused people in BC. What's more, the Provincial Government acknowledges 'more rooms have been identified' but they will only use them 'if a need is identified by health authorities.' It is unconscionable that any emergency housing is being held in reserve during this critical moment." They call for rapid action to house every unsheltered and inadequately housed resident of British Columbia.

Specifically, the letter asks Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, as well as the Premier and Mayors and Councilors throughout the province "to take decisive action now to adequately house those existing in street homelessness, encampments, shelters, poorly maintained SRO's and overcrowded reserve housing." They point out that "those living in encampments, inadequate housing such as SROs [single room occupancies], in shelters and on the streets in BC know they have been abandoned thus far. Fear, anger, panic and misinformation has set in. We ask that you take decisive action in BC and Vancouver by mustering all available resource to ensure the most vulnerable in our communities do not succumb to COVID-19. The time for uncompromising leadership on homelessness is critical now more than ever. Please ensure we do not fail unhoused residents of British Columbia."

People have taken over a Surrey community centre to emphasize the need for public buildings to be used for the homeless.

The letter points out that provincial and municipal authorities have the power to "acquire and use public and/or private property as required to prevent the spread of COVID-19" but that these powers "are not being utilized as they should be to permit unsheltered and under-housed people to properly physical-distance, self-isolate and quarantine at this time. It is time to take the decisive action emergency legislation allows and seize the housing. [...] The only adequate, human rights-based approach enables full access to the true physical distancing, self-isolating and access to sanitation our top health officials strongly urge for every citizen. Crowded SROs and 'petri-dish' shelters with shared bathrooms and showers do not provide access to adequate sanitation and leaves occupants and workers at great risk. Removing individuals from crowded shelter and housing stock after they develop symptoms is too little too late and undermines both individual and public rights and safety."

The letter calls on all levels of government to act quickly and decisively, including, and specifically to:

"Provide self-contained hotel, motel or other rooms with toilets, showers, sinks and beds for every individual that wants to move from the streets, encampments, shelters and inadequate housing including SROs and crowded reserve housing, and begin long term housing planning for all those who are temporarily housed.

"Ensure the number of units accounts for the overflow of women, trans and gender non-conforming people, and children escaping domestic violence during COVID-19; temporary foreign works and others with precarious immigration status; those who may be released from overcrowded and dangerous detention centres during this time.

"Delivery of three healthy meals daily to every room to allow people to physical distance and self-isolate as required.

"Delivery of needed safe supply including alcohol to anyone who requires it daily.

"Regular cleaning services and access to hygiene supplies as required.

"Adequate PPE, training and safety measures for all hotel, social services and other support staff working to support community members housed in the hotel stock.

"For those who are unable to move inside, whether because there is insufficient shelter, or available shelter is inaccessible to their needs, support people to 'space out' through empty park and greenspace assets through-out the province without risk of removal or persecution."

The letter is signed by:

Leslie Varley, Executive Director, BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres
Viveca Ellis, Interim Community Organizer, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
Fiona York, Coordinator, Carnegie Community Action Project
Anna Cooper, Staff Lawyer -- Homelessness, Pivot Legal Society

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Housing, Front Line Defence Against COVID-19,
Says United Nations Special Rapporteur

Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, published an article on the organization's website on March 18, citing the responsibilities of governments and states to curb the pandemic. They must, in particular:

"cease all evictions; provide emergency housing with services for those who are affected by the virus and must isolate; ensure that the enforcement of containment measures (eg: curfews) does not lead to the punishment of anyone based on their housing status; provide equal access to testing and health care; and provide adequate housing which may require the implementation of extraordinary measures as appropriate in a state of emergency, including using vacant and abandoned units and available short-term rentals.

"With respect to those facing job loss and economic hardship, States must: provide direct financial assistance for or defer rental and mortgage payments; enact a moratorium on evictions due to arrears; introduce rental stabilization or reduction measures; and, at least for the duration of the pandemic, suspend utility costs and surcharges."

She also stressed the danger that private interests may pose in the fight against COVID-19: "Measures are being introduced and significant resources allocated to mitigate against the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, such as lowering interest rates. There is a risk that such measures will enable global financial actors to use the pandemic and the misfortunes of many to dominate housing markets without regard for human rights standards, as they did in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis [...] States must prevent the predatory practices of institutional investors in the area of residential real estate."

She concludes by saying, "By ensuring access to secure housing with adequate sanitation, States will not only protect the lives of those who are homeless or living in informal settlements but will help protect the entire world's population by flattening the curve of COVID-19."

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