Yukon Teachers' Association says 2-metre rule 'not easy' in schools, calls for public safety verification

The Yukon Teachers Association says it wants more transparency about how schools are actually following COVID-19 safety guidelines in practice, saying it's now clear that keeping two metres distance isn't possible in some schools.

Union president worried about lack of substitutes amid pandemic

Ted Hupé is president of the Yukon Teachers Association. (Laura Howells/CBC)

The Yukon Teachers Association says it wants more transparency about how schools are actually following COVID-19 safety guidelines, saying it's clear that keeping two metres distance isn't possible in some schools.

"Our schools were never designed with physical distancing in mind," said  YTA president Ted Hupé, who said they have "learned a lot" in the first few weeks of class.

"Some schools can and some schools can't. It's all on the physicality of the building."

Meanwhile, Hupé also says there have been days this year when schools have not had enough substitutes, and is worried about a "ripple effect" going into flu season. 

Schools released operational plans this summer showing how they would follow the chief medical officers safety guidelines. But Hupé says some schools are changing their original plans because of spacing issues, adapting with more mask usage or different traffic flows. Meanwhile, he said some schools don't have official COVID-19 safety signage yet.

Hupé said he has no reason to believe schools are not acting safely. But he said the YTA wants a public verification system that shows what school are doing in practice, so teachers and parents can "build confidence" in the system. He says this job shouldn't fall to school principals.

Classrooms set up with new physical distancing measures in Whitehorse Elementary School. (Submitted by Sharon MacCoubrey)

Yukon students have now been back to class for more than four weeks. But Hupé said after the first week that keeping two metres of distance was proving not practically possible.

"Maintaining physical distance in a school setting is not easy," said Hupé in an earlier interview after the first week of class. "We're not, in practical terms able to fulfil the guidelines of two metres of physical distance."

"Are we saying that we can do something when many of the times we can't?... I'm worried about a false sense of security."

Guidelines from the chief medical officer acknowledge that physical distancing may not always be possible or appropriate in schools. Department of Education spokesperson Kyle Nightingale said efforts are made to reduce risk in other ways, like more hand washing, limiting mixing and wear a mask.

"Schools will continue to adapt and adjust on an ongoing basis to ensure they are continuing to meet the health and safety guidelines," Nightingale said.

Nightingale says schools have health and safety committees that will monitor, report on and adjust the safety measures. He said these committees will review operational plans on an ongoing basis, and adjust to ensure they're meeting COVID-19 guidelines.

Lack of substitutes could have 'ripple effect'

Meanwhile, Hupé said several schools have been short substitutes in the first few weeks of class.

In the past few weeks, he said there were cases when schools had six teachers absent, but only two substitutes available. He said another elementary school was five substitutes short one day. 

This means other teachers or administrators are pulled from preps or other assignments to cover, he said.

"What I fear is there will be a time when a school, especially coming to the cold and flu season, where a school will say ... I cannot provide the basic services in my building," said Hupé.

"That's when things come to a grinding halt."

Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee says the department continues to recruit substitute teachers. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Yukon has had a shortage of teachers-on-call for a few years, Hupé said. But he worries about added pressure during the pandemic, when older, retired teachers may not want to substitute.

Meanwhile, staff must stay or go home if they have COVID-19 symptoms.

Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee says her department recruits teachers-on-call at the beginning of each year. She said they have not hired any more substitutes than usual this year. McPhee says the numbers of teachers on call tends to increase as the year goes on.

Hupé called the response "window dressing."

Hupé suggests hiring permanent substitute teachers on to staff, so some substitutes are guaranteed, or raising pay for teachers on call.