May 10, 2021 - No 42


What Teachers and Education Workers Are Learning Through the Pandemic

Where Things Stand in K-12 Education in Ontario - Enver Villamizar


What Teachers and Education Workers
Are Learning Through the Pandemic

Laura Chesnik is an elementary teacher in Ontario and a host of the Education is a Right Podcast.

A major focus of our work since last May Day has been to lift the pressure on our peers that our role in this pandemic is to be good critics of the government. We need to find ways to put in place solutions by discussing what we are all facing and how we can make a difference.

In Ontario the first issue we faced after the initial shutdown in March 2020 was how to affirm our right to safe working conditions when we know the virus is spreading in our communities and it will come into our schools if we are not very vigilant. On the podcast Education Is a Right we began taking up this discussion directly in terms of how it poses itself in education: what it means to refuse unsafe work, how to refuse, and what happens when one does. For educators, the right to refuse is a bit different than in other sectors; we have exceptions as we come under the Education Act and we have a "duty of care" for our students, which means we must ensure they are supervised before we engage in a work refusal. So this created hesitation, that somehow we could not refuse. It also created the sense that by refusing we would be giving up our duty of care for our students. There is also the pressure that the Occupational Health and Safety Act does not allow you to refuse based on a general fear or concern; it has to be based on a specific concern that you personally have, that will directly affect you. It is as if you have to be able to prove the virus is in your air before you can legitimately refuse under these existing arrangements. So this too imposed the pressure that it is not possible or worth it to say No to try and bring in proper safety measures.

Early on in the school year, the Ministry of Labour kept dismissing things, claiming that without proof of the virus in the school itself, you do not have a valid reason to refuse. Refusals were transformed into what are called "complaints." Complaints were registered and recorded but we saw this was done using form letters that did not even accurately document the actual complaint. For example, despite all the knowledge that the virus spreads via aerosols, it stated right on the form letter that there is no evidence the virus spreads in the air through ventilation systems. The government's claims of no proof of the virus spreading in schools comes alongside its refusal to do mass testing in the workplaces to even know if COVID-19 is in the schools and find out how it is traveling.

We can see that the existing arrangements for health and safety which put everything on the individual -- either the worker or the supervisor -- do not protect us unless we have organization. They are meant to keep everyone isolated, making it a "choice" whether to uphold your rights or not. In fact, it is through working things out together that we can see that it is a social responsibility to refuse unsafe work and to make it safe. Yet, the whole system is set up to say that you as an individual have to have a legitimate fear for your own personal health and safety and cannot do a refusal "for others." It is aimed at preventing a collective expression of NO to conditions that are unsafe by reducing everyone to their own island, making their own choice. But, as people take stands it necessarily becomes an issue for everyone, so taking a stand is the starting point.

We have seen that while it may seem impossible at first to even consider how to empower oneself under these circumstances, there is always a way forward, you just have to keep talking about it, arguing it out and seeing what is possible.

So we began discussing openly how this issue of refusing posed itself, what it means to refuse, and that it is not an issue of refusing work per se, or just going through the motions. It is refusing to go along with something that is unacceptable and trying to find alternatives by affirming our right to conscience and freedom of speech.

We informed ourselves and our audience of the experiences of those who took a stand across the province and we also had our own experiences with this whole process. We realized that, in fact, a refusal and even a threat of a refusal does a lot. For example, it brings the conditions to the attention of parents, other staff and the administration. It does not permit things to continue unspoken. And it reveals the absurdity of the situation in which there are outbreaks in the schools but the Ministry of Labour inspectors say there is no evidence of the virus in the schools and the Minister of Education insists schools are not a source of transmission.

The issue we are taking up now is that it is not a choice whether to go along with unsafe conditions or not. It is a duty to not accept conditions that are unsafe and we should take up this duty without hesitation for ourselves, our colleagues, our students and the society as a whole.

Teachers and education workers in different parts of the province have started now taking stands collectively in their workplaces to refuse to go in if it is not safe to do so and if measures are not taken to make them safe. Some took the decision to refuse as a group, others took the decision to raise concerns and threaten a refusal if their concerns were not addressed. These actions resulted in changes being made in the workplaces, including the establishment of committees for reviewing safety that are not official but have been set up to allow workers to have their say about what is needed. In many cases administrators and parents have been very supportive, in fact even thanking people for doing work refusals or threatening a refusal.

The stands taken by doctors, nurses, scientists and other professionals with relevant expertise who are speaking out, calling for changes to make schools safer, to have mass testing, smaller class sizes, improved ventilation, or to close schools and provide the necessary supports for families has also made a difference. It has given teachers and education workers a lot more confidence that we are not alone in being concerned, that medical and scientific professionals are taking up their duty too. It is one fight.

Our experience is showing that by putting the problems on the agenda for everyone and having a way to inform one another, nothing is impossible. The work of the Workers' Centre to do this nationally is very important. We can see from our own experience and the experience of others across the country that solutions can be found, but it starts by taking a stand to not accept what is unacceptable.

(Photos: OSSTF, S. Osbourne, C. Spagnuolo)

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Where Things Stand in K-12 Education in Ontario

Picket in Windsor during one-day strikes by teachers and education workers, February 21, 2020. 

Enver Villamizar is a high school teacher in Ontario and a host of the Education is a Right Podcast.

At this point schools in Ontario have been closed indefinitely since April 12 which was the start of the spring break. It is important to note that special education classes and staff continue to be working in the schools as do custodians and other maintenance staff, along with some administrative and clerical staff. In one case all but one of a whole crew of custodians at a school that was "closed" became infected with COVID-19. So the idea that schools are all closed and everything is fine still shows that the protections required when people congregate have not been consistently put in place, so that even when most students and staff are not present, the virus gets in.

Prior to this latest shutdown all kinds of discussion was breaking out about whether to refuse to work when the spring break ended, how to refuse, and what that means for the entire school body. The threat of mass work refusals is something the school boards, the unions and the government see as a concern on their radar. It is likely one of the reasons that a number of boards closed their schools before the government acted, as the system is hanging on by a thread at the moment with a lack of supply teachers, people off on leaves, etc. Any refusal can shut down a school and a few of them can shut down a whole board. With the threat of a number of refusals, some school boards therefore shut down all their schools pre-emptively.

In response to persistent demands from educators, the government has announced that they can all now schedule appointments for a first dose of the vaccine, and those who did not have paid sick leave now have access to three paid sick days. This seems like a set-up to say that now everything is fine and the rest is up to you. This is not a plan to actually ensure the timely vaccination of teachers and education workers, at their place of work, for example, which would mean a guarantee, and that they will not have to line up or wait for a time when the shot is available for them.

A big demand now is that unless changes are made so that educators are fully vaccinated, have N95 masks and other necessary PPE, that ventilation is sorted out, not on a school-wide basis but on a class by class basis, with adequate paid sick days in place for all staff and parents who need to isolate at home, schools cannot re-open for everyone.

The Ontario government's recent announcement that it will pay for three COVID-related sick days from April 19 to September 25, 2021 is an attempt to appear to be addressing the demands of the people. But it is too little too late, widely seen as an act of political expediency to quell the growing outcry against its refusal to heed the advice of even its own medical advisors. It cannot be seen as a serious attempt to deal with how to ensure people can comply with public health protocols like staying home if they are symptomatic, are waiting for test results or have been in close contact with an infected person. And while the government will try to claim it has done its part to allow people who are sick to stay home, it refuses to address how to prevent people from getting sick in the first place, which is the starting point of its social responsibility.

(Photo: M. Simon, OnParActionNetwork)

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