Canada: a safe and sustainable return to public schools

published 24 August 2020 updated 9 June 2021

The Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE) stressed that all necessary protections need to be put in place to open public schools safely. The fact that those measures have not yet been taken, in large part due to inadequate resources and social dialogue, means that a long-term strategy is required if reopening is not to fail. An unsuccessful re-opening that leads to further spread of the virus would risk another school shutdown.

In a statement, which followed extensive discussions with provincial and territorial structures of the union, the CTF/FCE reports that sufficient funds have not been made available either by provincial governments or the federal government to ensure social distancing, PPEs, sanitation, physical modifications and other measures necessary for the safe operation of schools. Trade unions have made the case for months but, “the advice of our profession and our sector has been largely ignored, silencing teachers and leaving us concerned.”

The union is recommending a gradual approach to reduce risk to ensure that measures already taken, even if inadequate, are not wasted and time lost:

“To do this, we need a long-term strategy that goes beyond September; rather than rushing to reopen without adequate plans, delaying or staggering students’ return to school buildings will allow teachers and staff the time needed to properly prepare classrooms and common spaces, which is a better scenario than a failed restart.

Instead, the current reopening plans for schools put forward by the Provinces and Territories throw caution to the wind.”

In a June survey of more than 18,000 of the 300,000 people represented by the union, concern was expressed about safe reopening. The survey also reported reservations about distance learning both in terms of education quality, which depends, in large part on social contact and relationships, and equity, with inequalities having been amplified by the online shift. Teachers were also concerned about the impact on the mental health of students of isolation and stress in this artificial learning environment. As part of its preparations for reopening, the CTF/FCE prepared a resource on trauma-informed teaching and learning.

Teachers in Canada as in so many other countries want to provide the best learning environment possible for students and ensure that the public education system is strong and contributes fully to fairer, more decent, and more democratic societies. But that means that schools must be safe. As the statement concludes:

“If schools are to remain safe sanctuaries of learning, 2020-2021 could be a school year for all to be proud of. If, however, corners are cut, and the necessary health and safety measures are not in place, the ripple effects of failure will be felt far beyond the classroom.”

The full CTF/FCE statement can be read here.