British Columbia

B.C. teachers ask Labour Relations Board to step in and help settle COVID-19 concerns

The union representing B.C. teachers is asking the Labour Relations Board to step in and force the province to address teachers' concerns about working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Union says teachers feel pressured to work in unsafe conditions, safety plans aren't being met in schools

A sign welcomes students back to school at Hastings Elementary in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The union representing B.C. teachers is asking the Labour Relations Board to step in and force the province to address teachers' concerns about working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) filed an application Thursday under section 88 of the Labour Relations Code, which the union describes as a "rarely used provision" of the law.

"The employer is taking advantage of your professionalism, the high expectations you put on yourselves and your caring for students," BCTF president Teri Mooring wrote in a message to teachers Thursday evening.

"I know many of you feel unsafe and the government is failing to ensure school districts are doing everything they can to ensure you and your students are as safe as you can be."

Section 88 of the code allows the board to take action to settle differences between employers and employees when they arise during the term of a collective agreement.

In the application to the Labour Relations Board, the BCTF calls for the board to "assist the parties on an expedited basis to resolve these urgent concerns and prevent labour unrest."

Education Minister Rob Fleming refrained from addressing the BCTF application directly "out for respect for the independence of the board," but did defend the school restart program as a collaborative and successful effort so far.

"The orientation week and week one has helped us chase down and improve any tweaks, and we're going to have to do more of that, no question about it," said Fleming.

Students are pictured being welcomed back to school with physical distancing protocols in place at Lynn Valley Elementary in North Vancouver, B.C., on June 1. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Teachers began returning to the classroom to resume in-person classes last week following health and safety guidelines set out by the B.C. government, with the specifics defined by local school districts.

More than 85 per cent of K-12 public school students have returned for in-class learning in the first week, according to a release from the Ministry of Education.

It said an additional 1,526 positions have been created for the school restart, including 624 new teachers and 542 new custodial staff. In addition, $1.5 million has been provided for non-medical masks — enough for two per week for each staff and student.

But Mooring said in a news conference that the safety plans announced by government and individual school districts aren't being met on the ground.

She said without an enforcement mechanism available for teachers to have the shortfalls resolved quickly, many are feeling at risk on the job.

"For a classroom teacher, if my room isn't cleaned or my administrator won't give me a shield, it doesn't rise to the level of WorkSafe's definition of unsafe work," she said. 

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