In the News
Reopening of Elementary and Secondary Schools
Return to School in Quebec Must Not Take Place by Reducing COVID-19 Safety Measures
– Interview, Sylvain Mallette, President, Quebec Autonomous Teachers’ Federation –
Workers’ Forum: In the January 13 press release of the Quebec Autonomous Teachers’ Federation (FAE) the federation is critical of the Legault government’s decision to ease safety measures within the context of the reopening of schools on January 17. Can you tell us more about this?
Sylvain Mallette: We note that in order to have schools reopen, the government is reducing the safety measures for monitoring the evolution of the pandemic. For example, it will no longer be possible for a regional public health authority to close a school. Until the government very recently decided to change its strategy, once two students were infected with COVID a class would be closed, as the Omicron variant is highly transmissible. This was automatic.
That rule has now disappeared. Until very recently, cases were detected via a PCR test, the results of which would be sent directly to the regional public health authority, so that tracing could be carried out and, ultimately, a decision on isolation. This is no longer the case. The government’s strategy is now based on rapid testing, with the parent administering the test to his or her child if they have one or more symptoms [On January 20, the Ministry of Health and Social Services abruptly announced that high school students, unlike primary school students, would be taking their rapid tests in schools, which suggests that the responsibility for administering them will fall on teachers – Ed. Note].There’s no measure ensuring that the parent’s result is correct. So some infected children will be sent back to school, whereas PCR tests left no doubt in anyone’s mind because they were administered by the screening centres.
Only home contact cases are to be targeted for rapid testing. Teachers will continue to have access to PCR testing. However, strangely enough, the government will no longer be collecting daily data on the number of infections. The only mechanism in place is that on Fridays and Tuesdays schools will have to report on the absenteeism rate of their staff. Student absences will no longer be taken into account. It will no longer be possible to determine the epidemiological situation in schools. That’s finished! So much so that the government knows what lies ahead. It’s relying on school service centres and administrations to identify the services that will no longer be provided because of the spread of the virus. So a shift towards off-loading will take place in the schools, like in the hospitals and health care facilities.
If it’s such a minor issue, and we’re told the virus isn’t dangerous, then why are off-loading and unprecedented levels of absenteeism being planned for? How can it be said that there’s so little danger and that it’s so unimportant when it’s already foreseen that school service centres and administrations will practically be taking the first person who comes along into the school to compensate for the absence of personnel that we know will increase? There’s already talk of bringing parents in to replace teachers who will be absent because of COVID.
We can read between the lines regarding what we are told and what is being planned, about the directives being sent out in the schools’ network. This is what enables us to see what the government’s plan really is. Behind this plan, we can see that the government has lost control, has dragged its feet while other jurisdictions have anticipated the arrival of Omicron. The Premier, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Education chose to close their eyes and thought that if they closed their eyes the wave would take place without us feeling it.
They lost control. We read in its January 13 memo that Quebec’s Institute for Excellence in Health and Social Services (INESSS) “is no longer able to reliably provide a prediction report on the risk of hospitalization, as it is based on the number of positive cases reported. However, changes in screening strategies to account for the very rapid evolution of new cases result in a significant underestimation of the number of actual cases.”
We’re in a situation in which they’re going to tell us that all is well and then pretend that because they say so people will be convinced that everything is fine.
In all honesty, by virtue of my mandates and responsibilities, I cannot say that under such conditions the reopening of schools is safe. It’s not safe.
WF: What are the FAE’s demands for a safe return to school?
SM: The FAE is a structure that relies on affiliated unions, and our affiliates are doing outreach right now. They’re evaluating with us how to ensure that safety is there. We must not minimize what is going to happen over the next few weeks.
In order for schools to be able to reopen safely, an important issue is to make N95 masks available. There’s also the matter of installing air ventilators in the classrooms, as we have been asking for months. We know that over half of the buildings are in poor condition and that more than 50 per cent of reported cases of infection have taken place through the schools. Steps must be taken to ensure that ventilation is taken seriously, through the purchase of air ventilators. Clearly, schools are spreading the potentially dangerous, highly transmittable virus, causing disruptions in services and instability in the system which are detrimental to students, particularly the most vulnerable students. We need to ask questions. We filed an action with the Quebec Superior Court in the fall of 2020, which we are maintaining, demanding safety in the schools in connection with the pandemic. We want to be in a position to question Dr. Arruda [the Quebec Public Health director until he resigned on January 10 – Ed. Note] and the Minister of Health, particularly on the issue of air ventilation.
We must remain vigilant. People and parents, along with ourselves, must demand answers, as the conditions for a safe return to school are not being met. The unions must assume their responsibilities and ultimately take action if we realize that no changes are being made. We must assess the recourse available to us.
(Workers’ Forum, posted January 27, 2022. Translated from the original French by Workers’ Forum.)