For many Quebec teachers, unanswered questions punctuate an already uncertain time

Many Quebec teachers, already anxious about their own health and that of their students, also feel that they are heading back into the classroom without answers to basic questions.

Education Ministry says it remains confident about back-to-school plan

A staff member prepares the cafeteria at Marguerite-De Lajemmerais secondary school in Montreal's east end. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Many Quebec teachers, already anxious about their own health, say that they are heading back into the classroom without answers to basic questions, such as what will happen if a student is infected with COVID-19.

Nearly 2,000 teachers, principals and other education workers in public schools filled out an email questionnaire circulated last week by CBC Montreal and Radio-Canada.

More than 700 teachers who completed the questionnaire detailed their concerns about Quebec's back-to-school plan in an open-ended optional question.

In hundreds of these answers, teachers said they feel in the dark about key details of the plan, even though students will begin returning to classrooms today.

There has been a "total communication breakdown" since teachers and students were sent home shortly after March break, said Kevin Saunders, a high school teacher in Montreal's West Island and a rep for the Pearson Teachers Union.

"There's just so many unanswered questions that we've been asking, and we just haven't gotten any answers for anything yet," Saunders said.

He said those unanswered questions include:

  • What, exactly, happens when a student tests positive for COVID-19?
  • If a teacher is obliged to stay home because of infection or a quarantine order, do they get paid?
  • Who will teach online courses?
  • Who will replace a sick teacher in the midst of a potential teacher shortage?

Along with the uncertainty, a large majority of questionnaire respondents indicated they are feeling more anxious now compared to this time last year.

One teacher at an English high school in Montreal with 23 years of experience said he and many colleagues understand the need to return to class and are prepared to do so.

But he said he found Education Minister Jean-François Roberge's recent news conference, during which Roberge revealed an updated version of the back-to-school plan, almost surreal in its abruptness.

He spoke on on the condition of anonymity because he was concerned about the consequences of speaking out.

"Basically it was like: 'We're going back to school, they're going to have to wear masks but not all the time, and here you go. Teachers, you deal with it now,'" the teacher said in an interview. "Well. So I felt that this was absolutely insane."

The teacher raised the issue of a student getting infected. He said the protocols around how to respond are unclear.

"What do you do?" he asked. "Clear the class? Clear the school? And if so, how long?" He acknowledged that Roberge said a process would be implemented to inform parents and others at the school. "But then what?"

Juliet Oppong-Nuako, a teacher at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School, said she felt 'very fortunate' to return on Monday to a staff meeting where specific plans for sick students and sick teachers were outlined. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Some teachers in the English system indicated that school principals and school boards, not the Education Ministry, have been providing answers.

Juliet Oppong-Nuako, a teacher at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School in Montreal, said she felt "very fortunate" to return on Monday to a staff meeting where specific plans for sick students and sick teachers were outlined.

"I think that I've gotten more from my principal and more from my school board as to what's next and what's to come — definitely not from the Quebec government," Oppong-Nuako said.

The list of questions from teachers is extensive.

"Where will teachers have safe personal space to do their work?" asked one respondent, who teaches Grades 1 and 2 in the English system in the Montreal area. "Our school is filled to beyond capacity. Teachers and professionals work in closets, book rooms and what were once cloakrooms, to try to get work and prep done within the school day. Now what?"

"I worry for the substitutes," wrote another, who teaches in a French secondary school in Montreal. "They won't have only one 'bubble' but tons of them. …they don't have health days in bank and if they can't change schools or if they get sick, that's their salary that will be cut. What is the support plan for them?"

Masks and disinfectant are included among back-to-school supplies at Laurier primary school in Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

"I'm afraid I won't have time to cover my entire program this year because of the catch-up to do," noted a primary school teacher in the French system with over 20 years of experience. "The government injects $20 million in student services, but we already have a shortage of teachers. Where will they get them?"

A primary school teacher in the English system wondered "where the time will come from if the government requires us to teach both in the classroom and also remotely full-time? It significantly increases the workload. Also, who becomes responsible for my student's learning if I am sick? There is already a teacher shortage."

CBC Montreal contacted the Education Ministry to seek comment on the questionnaire and the teachers' concerns.

In a written statement, the ministry said it has taken every step to prevent the spread of the virus and to ensure a positive educational experience for students, but that "in the context of a global pandemic, it's no surprise that staff are feeling more anxious than they were last fall."

"The collaboration with public health enabled us, last spring, to bring hundreds of thousands of students back to class, without relaunching the pandemic," the statement said. "We are confident that by following their recommendations once again, we can do the same this fall, for the benefit of staff and students."

Measures 'not clearly understood,' opposition says

Quebec's opposition parties say the ongoing uncertainty is a major concern.

Vincent Marissal, Québec Solidaire's economy critic and a father of four, said he received an email from the primary school in his neighbourhood "saying basically that we were in the dark about many questions, about how we're going to manage this back-to-school session."

Marissal said it was clear that the insistence of Roberge and Premier François Legault that "everything will be OK" was incorrect.

"If the teachers are flagging this now, saying: 'stop it, it is not OK, we don't have the guidelines, we don't know how to apply the guidelines and which are the guidelines,' I mean, it's not too late for Minister Roberge to go back on the field and listen to the teachers and the parents as well."

André Fortin, the Quebec Liberal Party's public finance critic, said many of the measures Roberge has announced "are not clearly understood by people," adding to a level of anxiety that is already higher than usual.

"This year, there's a whole other sphere of worry that's being added on and it's normal for parents to feel a bit worried," Fortin said. "But what's not normal is for teachers not to have the proper assurances as to how things are going to go in their classroom." 

"If anybody should know how it's going to go, it's them," Fortin said. "If anybody should have had the proper information from the government, it's them."

With files from Verity Stevenson

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