September 8, 2020 - No. 59
Serious Concerns During First Week of
Reopening of Schools in Quebec
The Challenge that Teachers and Education Workers Are Facing
Montreal demonstration August 23, 2020 calling for a
safe return to school.
• Teachers Demand Accelerated COVID-19 Testing in Schools and Accurate Data on Infections
• More Maintenance Staff Needed to Ensure Hygiene
• Insufficient Measures to Ensure School Transportation Safety
• Doctors and Health Specialists Question Safety of Back-to-School Plan
• Concerns for Preparedness for Second Wave of COVID-19
- Jeff Begley
Serious Concerns During First Week of Reopening of Schools in Quebec
On August 31, schools in Quebec reopened, from kindergarten to high
school. There are 2,736 public educational institutions with 1,216,791
students, 107,744 teachers, and more than 60,000 support staff and
The first feature of this back-to-school period, with COVID-19 not
under control, is the immense social love and enthusiasm that teachers
demonstrated when welcoming their students. As soon as they set foot in
the school, they made sure that hand sanitizer and personal
protective equipment were available for everyone, and every day
since teachers have been working collectively on initiatives that
ensure their health and that of their students, thereby also looking
after the health of the community. They have only had a few days,
working together, to ensure that the back-to-school period is as safe
as possible to protect the health of young people and is also
teaching. The students, especially those in secondary school, many who
worked in food and retail during the summer under COVID-19, are using
their experience and are very disciplined in following and enforcing
However, the return to the classroom was also marked by anxiety. The
anxiety is not just because of the seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis,
but also because the government is evading its responsibility to
protect the health and safety of everyone in the school system.
Teachers are very concerned about the clash between the actual
the schools and what the government claims are appropriate measures in
place at the beginning of the school year. Indeed, despite all the
proposals from teachers on how to organize for students to be in school
while respecting physical distancing, essential to the control of the
pandemic, the government and its Ministry of Education have declared
that physical distancing is not necessary in classrooms and nor is the
wearing of masks. The concept of the whole class as a bubble disregards
all the efforts of teachers to have smaller class sizes and physical
distancing within the classroom to protect everyone. The efforts of the
teachers were rejected without explanation or justification.
The other phenomenon that
adds to the anxiety is the constant public
relations assault of the Quebec government. In this very difficult
situation they tell the public that the situation is under control and
the teachers are satisfied. Minister of Education Jean-François
Roberge was quoted in the media on September 3, saying: "The echo I get
teachers and staff are satisfied, things are going well, and with each
passing day, the level of anxiety is decreasing and people are more and
more reassured." He said this on the very day the government made
public the list of 47 schools that had reported cases of COVID-19
during the first week of school. In elementary schools over 20
and in secondary schools often more than 30, spend more than five hours a
day together in classrooms without any physical distancing! Teachers are
concerned because these are conditions that promote the transmission of
At the same time the government is talking about laxness in the
schools and even talking about closing them down if things get worse,
for which it will blame education staff or young people and avoid
public scrutiny of its own decisions. This type of public relations
cover-up is despised by teachers and their colleagues who have to teach
ensure the safety of all on a daily basis without any confidence or
sense of security that the government is taking concrete action to
This convinces teachers that they need to step up their actions to
hold the government accountable and to force it to assume its
responsibilities. At the same time, they have taken ownership of the
issue of health and safety for all, a responsibility they have taken up
from the moment they set foot in their schools. Teachers see the need
opportunities to collectively discuss and exchange views and share
experiences to work out what can be done to change the situation in a
way that benefits the people.
As of August 31, Quebec students are back in schools from the
kindergarten to high school levels. Already, cases of COVID-19
infection have been reported in schools in many regions of Quebec. Most
who have tested positive are teachers, but students have also been
affected. Entire classes have been sent home for preventive isolation,
in addition to the teachers who have tested positive and colleagues
they were in close contact.
So far, the government has imposed a code of silence on the COVID-19
cases in schools. The Ministry of Health and Social Services waited a
whole week, until September 4, to release only limited data and did so
in a way that does not allow anyone to get a clear picture of what is
happening and what measures are being taken.
The data released gives the names of 47 schools where at least one
case of COVID-19 infection was reported between August 26 and September
3. However, the list does not reveal the number of known cases per
school, only the name of the school, the board or service centre that
oversees it -- which helps indicate the region -- and the date
the case was reported. Nothing useful can be done with this
information. After this limited information was made public and
teachers and parents firmly denounced the government for not doing its
duty to inform them, the government committed that it will soon publish
a table showing the number of new cases among both students and staff,
health region, school service centre and school.
Sylvain Mallette, President of the Autonomous Teachers' Federation
(FAE), spoke to the press after the list was posted and said: "The
government cannot pretend that it was ready for the new school year
when it waited until September 4 to give an incomplete picture. It's a
potentially deadly virus, and they are pretending that things can just
fall into place as we go along."
He blamed the Quebec government for wanting to "minimize" the
current situation. According to him, the list circulated on September 4
obscures the fact that there have been upheavals experienced in several
classrooms due to the reported cases.
"Students are currently facing educational breakdowns," he noted,
referring to infected children and teachers being quarantined. He gave
the example of the Polyvalente de Deux-Montagnes, in the Laurentians,
where six teachers have contracted the disease and 20 others are
still in preventive isolation.
The FAE is asking for the publication of more information including
whether an infected staff member is a teacher or other education worker
(while preserving his or her anonymity), as well as what measures have
been taken when infections are detected to do contact tracing and implement
In these circumstances, teachers are also taking action to demand
accelerated testing for COVID-19 in schools and for public disclosure
of data on infections in schools. According to the FAE, the Minister of Health and Social Services announced,
on August 10, the implementation of an accelerated and
effective screening mechanism in schools. "There is no evidence that
such screening is in place," says the FAE. The Federation therefore
announced on September 2 that it will apply to the Quebec Superior
Court to force the government to establish the requested mechanism and
provide all the documents related to the health plan that apply to the
school system, in particular the data concerning cases of infection.
Accelerated screening services in schools and the publication of
data on cases of infection would allow for rapid action in the event of
an infection and an accurate assessment of how these cases happened so
as to remedy the situation.
The government is more than reluctant to implement a systematic
screening plan in schools and to provide the information that the
teachers are asking for. Many teachers are saying that this is because
systematic screening in schools is seen by the government as a cost
that they don't want to pay, under the hoax of maintaining the
balance between safety and the economy. This is not acceptable.
Safeguarding the health and the safety of the people is a matter of
principle, a matter of upholding rights, and all measures must be
implemented so that this right is guaranteed. It cannot be a matter of
"balancing" and gambling with people's lives.
Sylvain Mallette had this to say to Workers' Forum on the issue of accelerated testing for teachers:
"Right now there are teachers and other education colleagues who
have to wait more than 48 hours to get an appointment to have a test
and 48 to 72 hours to get a result," he said. "The domino effect is
very strong in the school environment. There is no mechanism that
allows someone who has symptoms to be tested quickly and get a result
very quickly. The lack of an accelerated screening mechanism causes a
serious health and safety problem in schools and creates conditions for
the spread of COVID-19. It also causes a disruption in student learning
and a disorganized work environment. It is unacceptable that the
government has not provided any means to deal with the
consequences of the type of back-to-school program it has chosen, which
does not involve physical distancing in the classroom."
"At the FAE, we have a legal duty to ensure the health and safety of
our members. We also have a moral duty because if our members get sick,
our students can get sick and their parents can get sick. However, we
must be given the means to ensure the health and safety of our members,
which is not currently the case. The government is not
doing its duty to fully protect the health and safety of our members as
well as of the staff, and it is not providing us with the means to do
School maintenance workers have a critical role to play in
preventing the transmission of COVID-19. In addition to their usual
routine, they have increased duties. The Quebec National Institute of
Public Health recently published a document entitled "COVID-19:
Cleaning and Disinfection of Surfaces" which lists some of these:
- The most frequently touched surfaces (e.g.: door handles, chair
armrests, tables, light switches, electronic equipment control levers,
water faucets, elevator buttons, stair railings, toilets, etc.) are
more likely to be contaminated and special attention must therefore be
paid to the frequency and effectiveness of their cleaning and
- Electronic devices, such as computer keyboards, tablets and cell
phones, can be disinfected with alcohol wipes (at least daily) or
follow the manufacturer's recommendations for cleaning and disinfection
products compatible with the device.
- Waterproof gloves should be worn to protect hands during cleaning.
- Hands and forearms should be washed with soap and water when gloves are removed.
- After cleaning and disinfection, gloves that are washable should
be thoroughly washed with water and detergent and dried, or discarded
and replaced with a new pair if necessary.
- Hand washing should be done before and after wearing gloves.
- After cleaning and disinfection work, clothing worn should be removed and washed.
In April, one of the unions representing these workers, the
Federation of Public Service Employees (FEESP-CSN), stressed the need
"to provide specific hygiene and disinfection measures and sufficient
housekeeping staff to implement them." On August 30, Éric
Pronovost, President of the Federation of School Support Staff
the same point and told the press that "it takes an average of 25 to 35
per cent more time for a maintenance worker to disinfect a school, and
to do so in accordance with public health standards."
Maintenance staff are expressing concern that the lack of staff is
resulting in a huge workload, and that some school principals have
actually reduced the number of hours and the frequency of cleaning.
At the end of June, the Ministry of Education announced new measures
regarding the transportation of students on school buses for the new
school year, the main feature being the inadequacy of the physical
distancing between students. The number of students who can sit on the
same bench is reduced from three to two, bringing the maximum number of
students that can travel on a school bus to 48 instead of 72. The other
"Students should, as much as possible, remain together on the same bench each day;
"Wearing of face coverings inside the vehicle is voluntary for
students in pre-school up to grade 4 and mandatory for
those in grade 5 through to the end of high school;
"Antiseptic hand gel is made available to students as they enter the bus;
"Complete cleaning of the bus is performed daily;
"The basic disinfection of the areas most frequently touched by
students (e.g., seat backs and ramps) is carried out for vehicles that
are used for more than one transportation route in the morning or at
the end of the day."
School bus drivers must wear a mask and face shield as they will not be
separated from their young passengers by two metres. Among the concerns
that workers and their organizations shared were the fogging of glasses
and the reflections caused by face shields, both of which pose an obstacle
to safe driving. The government did not require the addition of a
Plexiglas shield between drivers and students, and left this as a matter
of "a choice" by the various school bus companies. The companies have
refused to add this barrier because the government has not committed to
paying for it.
The Federation of the Public Services' Employees (FEESP-CSN),
which represents more than 3,000 school vehicle drivers in Quebec, also
pointed out that the Minister of Education's bubble-classroom concept will
not be respected on buses. In a press release, the organization said,
"It's as if the school service centres wanted to give priority
to transporting as many students as possible by cutting corners for
safety. We would have liked the [Labour Standards, Pay Equity and
Workplace Health and Safety Board] to consult with us before approving
changes in interpretation that do not represent the best choices in these
circumstances. These types of decisions are normally made
following joint consultation ... If the school system wants to maximize
the number of students on school buses, it must be done safely, that
is, by installing physical barriers in all school vehicles."
Another consequence of these measures is that thousands of students
will not have access to school transportation. There is a need for new
buses and the hiring of drivers, in addition to providing real physical
distancing, to relieve the burden on families to transport their
children to school.
On August 26, Quebec media published a letter by Dr. George
Thanassoulis, Director of Genomic and Preventive Cardiology at the
McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and Assistant Professor of
Medicine at McGill University, and Sonia Tremblay, a family physician.
The letter was co-signed by more than 150 health specialists
and is addressed to the Premier, the Minister and Assistant Deputy
Minister of Health, the National Director of Public Health, and the
Regional Director of Public Health in Montreal.
Dear Premier Legault, Ministre Dubé, Ministre Roberge, Dr. Arruda and Dr. Drouin,
As physicians, scientists, and parents of school age children, we
were largely disappointed with the government's return to school plan
that was disclosed to the public on August 10. We believe the current
plan is inadequate and needs to be improved. As described, the return
to school plan may put children and teachers at risk of contracting
COVID-19. Furthermore, the plan could lead to outbreaks within their
families and their communities. This could, ultimately, undo much of
our efforts to control this epidemic that have been made collectively
in the last six months.
We believe the majority of Quebeckers want their children to return
to schools come September. However, this must be done safely.
Therefore, the objective should be to optimize the school environment
to ensure that the risk of SARS-CoV2 transmission is as low as
possible. To do so, the government should carefully review its back
school plan with the view of implementing the following:
1. Social distancing: Social distancing must be prioritized for all
children (i.e. separation of at least one metre between students), in all
areas of the school and for all grade levels. The government's plan to not
encourage social distancing within classes (some having more than 30
children) is contrary to current recommendations by many expert groups.
The number of students per class should also be reduced as much as
possible and the appropriate resources should be provided to make this
possible. Denmark and Norway succeeded with their back to school plan
with reduced classes of 12-15 children. Childcare programs
should also be modified to limit interaction between children of
2. Mask wearing in all indoor school areas: Several studies
demonstrate that masks effectively reduce the transmission of
SARS-CoV2. However, the Quebec return to school recommendation to wear
masks does not include time in classrooms, where students spend most of
their day in close proximity to their peers. In fact, the American
Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended masks in primary and
secondary schools to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV2.
3. Mandatory daily symptom screening: The best way to prevent
outbreaks in our schools is to ensure that the virus is kept out of
schools. To do so, parents, teachers and students must remain vigilant
to any potential symptoms that suggest SARS-CoV2 infection, and if
present must stay home. Daily mandatory symptom screening should be
undertaken by parents before sending their children to school. Given
the expected high rates of absenteeism due to possible symptoms,
schools must have measures in place to ensure students can continue
their learning from home. Quebec should also encourage new active
screening strategies such as use of saliva-based tests and rapid
4. On-line learning option: The government should consider expanding
the online option to allow parents the choice for online learning,
given the current situation. Each family should have the right to
their child should attend school in person this fall based on their own specific set of circumstances. This option would
have the effect of reducing class sizes and improving social
distancing, as a sizeable minority of parents would likely select this
5. Air quality/ventilation: Many schools in Quebec are in older
buildings and are overpopulated. Therefore, every effort should be made
to optimize air quality and ventilation. School ventilation systems
should be evaluated and updated as required within the shortest
possible timeframe. In the meantime, simple solutions to improve
should be recommended (e.g. opening windows, use of outdoor spaces and
addition of temporary air filtration devices).
Based on the experience of many countries around the world (e.g.
the Netherlands, Germany, south Korea), we know that students can return to
school safely with the appropriate plans in place. However, in other
countries (e.g. Israel), the reopening of schools led to major
outbreaks and triggered a massive wave of infections in the community,
demonstrating how precarious the schools can be. Since it
is impossible to accurately predict the impact of the reopening of schools in
Quebec, a careful and prudent approach is strongly
The current back-to-school plan in Quebec needs to better consider
all the available scientific evidence to prevent outbreaks in schools,
to avoid jeopardizing the safety of our children, teachers and parents,
as well as, to prevent a resurgence of SARS-CoV2 in our community. It
needs to be promptly reviewed and revised to ensure a safer return
to school for all.
To see the list of signatories, click here.
Jeff Begley is President of the Federation of Health and Social Services (FSSS-CSN).
Workers' Forum: What are your main concerns at the FSSS-CSN at this time?
Jeff Begley: Our two main concerns right now are the
state of preparedness for a possible second wave of COVID-19 and the
negotiations between the public sector unions and the Quebec government.
If there is any preparation for a second wave being done by the
government right now, we are not part of it. Whatever the government is
doing in Quebec it is with a small group. It is not working with the
unions. We don't know what it is doing.
We lived through the first wave. We lived through the failure to
provide personal protective equipment. Are we going to have the N95
mask in the residential and long-term care centres when there is an outbreak? We don't have an answer
to that. We know we must have them but it is far from certain that we
The question of personnel going back and forth between
areas where where there are many COVID-19 patients to those where
there are none, is
an important issue. At the moment, there is no outbreak, and if there
is a second wave we will probably have enough orderlies on hand, with
the new recruits coming in, so that orderlies will not have to go back
and forth. But what about the other types of jobs, the
maintenance workers, for example, for which there has been no hiring?
COVID-19 may very well infect these workers. We don't see the plan to
make sure that in these types of jobs there is not going to be
There is no transparency in what the government is doing. I suspect
that most employers receive information in dribs and drabs. Our members
have been on the ground throughout this first wave. They have things to
propose to improve the situation. We have asked for meetings at all
levels to discuss the situation. We are not being listened to.
We need meetings at the Quebec-wide and local levels. Not everything
requires a solution at the Quebec-wide level. Of course, some things, like
the issue of personal protective equipment, have to be dealt with at
the Quebec-wide level. But when it comes to the deployment of personnel, a
lot can be worked out at the local level. Our impression is that not
the union but the employers have been left out. As a result, workers
have no assurances and they are worried. All they are being told is
that we will be ready for a second wave. Throughout the first wave we
have seen how disconnected the public discourse is from what has been
happening on the ground. The government is good at public
relations, but in direct relations with the people who do the work,
it's a different story.
WF: What is new with regard to public sector negotiations?
JB: It's not going well. Again, what the government is
saying in the media does not match what is happening at the negotiating
table. Because of the urgency of the situation, it is not possible this
time to put forward a settlement that is not entirely satisfactory. It
seems that the government is playing the card of trying to find
some weak link, whoever it may be, that will accept a settlement that
is less than satisfactory. The government should not try to divide and
rule. It should start negotiating to reach a settlement that satisfies
us, and, above all, makes serious improvements to the public health and social services network.
We must resolutely move forward on the wage issue. As we have
already discussed, for this round of negotiations the CSN has put
forward fixed amount wage demands: $2.00 per hour in the first year --
$0.75 in the second year, $0.75 in the third year. The reason we have
put forward fixed amounts is to narrow the wage gap. If you earn $20
per hour, $3.50 over three years equals a 17 per cent wage increase. If
you earn $60 an hour, the increase is about six per cent. This would be a
real wage catch-up for low wage earners.
In addition, there is the question of undoing the effects of Bill 10
which was brought in by the previous Liberal government and its Health
Minister Gaétan Barrette. Bill 10 centralized all the powers of
the network in the hands of the Minister and, in particular, removed
staff members and citizens from any participation in decision making.
We also have demands regarding working conditions and a lot of
health and safety demands. We are asking for an improvement in work
organization, which includes the hiring of more staff, including the
maintenance staff that I mentioned earlier. We are also facing a
situation where many employers -- not all, but many -- are pressuring
people who are on sick leave or people who have been injured on the job
to return to work before they have fully recovered. This does not make
sense from a human point of view, and it also costs the health care
system a lot more in the long run when workers come back to work too
soon. The main issue in all of this is prevention. Prevention in
the workplace must be improved to make sure injuries and illnesses
As far as the FSSS-CSN is concerned, we are very far from an
agreement. The government should concentrate less on public relations
and more on negotiating seriously with us.
This fall is going to be very intense. We must fight for our members and for the entire health and social services network.
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