Teachers upset about reporting to empty classrooms during COVID-19 pandemic: union

By | March 18, 2020

Some teachers in Winnipeg’s largest school division are upset they may be required to report to empty classrooms once all classes are suspended as the COVID-19 pandemic escalates.

The president of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association said its members in the Winnipeg School Division are being asked to “jump through quite a few hoops” to get approval to work remotely.

“We are hearing anger, frustration, hurt, disappointment, just a lot of very unhappy teachers,” Michelle Wolfe told Nelly Gonzalez in an interview Wednesday on CBC Radio’s Up To Speed.

Manitoba’s Minister of Education Kelvin Goertzen announced last Friday all schools in the province are suspending classes for students for three weeks, including spring break, starting on March 23.

In the meantime, the school division has been encouraging students stay home from schools, if possible, to prevent spread.

Wolfe said she has lost track of all the calls and emails she has received over the last 48 hours from educators who fear they are being put at “unnecessary risk” of exposure to the novel coronavirus at work and bringing it home to their loved ones.

“I’m surprised in that it doesn’t seem to align with all of the public health advice that we’ve been hearing over the last while regarding social distancing,” Wolfe said.

Teachers are required to go in, she said. Requests to stay home will be ruled on a case-by-case basis.

Wolfe said the province left the choice open for individual divisions to demand teachers report to schools for work.

Child care has been identified as a valid reason to work from home. “[Teachers] would need to be able to inform the division that there is no other child care option available to them,” Wolfe said.

A letter to staff indicates all decisions for work-from-home will be made by the senior administration of the division.

“We are being mindful of statutory rights and obligations applicable in situations related to COVID-19,” the letter said, including employees’ rights to family responsibility leave for the care or health of a child or immediate family member, protections against discrimination and the duty to accommodate, privacy and those that fall under the Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health Act.

Payroll staff are allowed to work from home to ensure everyone gets paid, Wolfe said, adding human resources staff work in closer quarters than teachers.

“It isn’t reflective of the messaging that’s been given to teachers,” she said.

The teachers’ association said educators should have the right to work from home and follow the advice from provincial public health officials about social distancing during the pandemic.

“Teachers, too, are following the advice that everyone else in Canada and in fact in the world is receiving to socially distance themselves to avoid contact with others and to flatten the curve and slow the spread of this illness,” Wolfe said.

Winnipeg School Division did not provide an interview, and its rationale is not explicit in its online pandemic plan. In a statement, the school division said it is following the direction of the education minister.

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