Quebec teachers, bus drivers unions raise concerns over back-to-school plan amid coronavirus crisis

Unions representing teachers and bus drivers in Quebec are concerned over the government’s plan to send young students and children back to elementary schools and daycares in May as the province’s novel coronavirus cases continue to climb.

The Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, which oversees nine unions and represents more than 45,000 teachers, said that staff members will not return to work without adequate personal protective equipment.

Sylvain Mallette, president of the federation, claims that teachers were not consulted about the strategy and accused the government of using schools to build herd immunity to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“We will not accept that the teachers are not protected and that they will be on the front lines without armour,” he said in a statement.

READ MORE: What we know about Quebec’s plan to reopen elementary schools, daycares

The provincial government announced on Monday that elementary schools and daycares will gradually reopen starting on May 11 in most regions. The Greater Montreal area, which is where roughly half of the cases are located, will follow suit on May 19.

Quebec Premier François Legault said that young children are not at high risk for the disease and the province’s decision was made in line with public health authorities.

There will be a maximum of about 15 students per class and physical-distancing rules will be in place, but teachers in elementary schools will not be required to wear protective gear and neither will the students.

Legault has also stressed that attendance is not obligatory and that parents may keep their children at home if they wish. The province is also willing to adjust plans if necessary, he added.

READ MORE: Quebec elementary schools, daycares to gradually reopen in May

The Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers argues the government should have held consultations before making any decisions. Union president Heidi Yetman told Global News her members will co-operate, but they have serious concerns about safety.

“There is not one other province in Canada that is talking about reopening schools,” she said. “And here we are. I live on the island of Montreal, in a hot spot of COVID-19, and we’re thinking about reopening schools in three weeks?

“It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

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When it comes to social-distancing measures, Yetman said it would be difficult to ensure that young children maintain those rules in a school setting.

Yetman said she understands that youth are less affected by the virus but that if she had children in elementary school, she would question sending them back.

“I would definitely think twice,” she said.

Teamsters Canada, which represents bus drivers, said in a statement that it hopes measures will be implemented to protect drivers and children.

The union said it is not against gradually reopening and that it will participate in meetings with the education ministry.

However, it pointed out that many bus drivers are older and there are concerns about their health amid the pandemic. Many employees may not want to return to work over fears of getting sick, according to the union.

2:05COVID-19: Quebec to reopen primary schools, daycares in May

COVID-19: Quebec to reopen primary schools, daycares in May

With files from the Canadian Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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