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B.C. teachers’ union asking labour relations board to look at ‘haphazard’ school reopening plan

Wednesday, September 23, 2020 @ 9:14 AM | By Ian Burns

The union representing teachers in British Columbia has turned to the provincial labour relations board to help deal with its concerns over the provincial government’s back-to-school plan.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is arguing school districts reopened after Labour Day without the full understanding and knowledge of how provincial health and safety measures would operate, leading to an inconsistent response which has caused confusion and stress among its members.

“Standards differ between districts and sometimes conflict with advice previously given or from other agencies,” the union’s application reads. “Teachers report that they are feeling pressured to work in unsafe conditions and are demanding significant changes to ensure they and their students are protected.”

The union is making its application under s. 88 of the B.C. Labour Relations Code, which allows the board to investigate differences between parties to a collective agreement and then make non-binding recommendations to resolve them. Union president Teri Mooring said her hope is that the government addresses what she calls “the many communication, process, and health and safety problems of their restart plan.”

“Critically, our application seeks to enhance the enforcement measures to ensure school districts take all possible actions to keep teachers and students safe,” she said. “The BCTF continues to push every available strategy to address the inequities of working conditions, the haphazard implementation of health and safety measures, and confusing changes in government messages and documents.”

A spokesperson for the provincial Ministry of Education said the government could not comment on the specifics of the application, but Education Minister Rob Fleming has said each school district plan follows strict provincial health and safety measures co-developed with the provincial health officer, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the Ministry.

“School districts are adapting their schedules and learning groups to fit within those measures based on student population and local consultation with education partners, parents and Indigenous rights holders,” he said.

Robert Russo, University of British Columbia law lecturer

Robert Russo, who teaches labour and employment law at the University of British Columbia, said the basic problem the BCTF has is that it feels as if it was not properly consulted on the decision to bring students back to class full time in September. He said s. 88 is designed to provide an avenue to resolving differences before they escalate to an arbitral level.

“What the BCTF is trying to do is force the government to become involved, which the government has been reluctant to do,” he said. “The province is saying it is the individual school districts that are doing this, but it is the government which set the policies. This is a way to push the process of consultation along and try to hold the government’s feet to the fire, but do it in the gentlest way possible.”

Russo said he wouldn’t be surprised if the action of simply filing the complaint compels the government to consult more closely with the BCTF on the pandemic response in schools, especially in light of the upcoming provincial election.

“You may see this being resolved without the board taking it on,” he said. “But if the discussions aren’t satisfactory then after the election you will likely see a return to the board to request more compulsory orders.”

B.C. Labour Relations Board information officer Julie Griffith said the board is currently reaching out to all the parties involved in the complaint.

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