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While the Omicron wave is still raging, the CAQ is stubbornly rushing the reopening of schools. Despite the government’s assurances, there is no doubt that the proximity of students and staff in full, poorly ventilated classrooms will create mass outbreaks and worsen an already serious situation. Returning to school in these conditions will lead to disaster. We must organize a work refusal until the schools are truly safe. 

Because of the inaction of François Legault and the CAQ, infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are increasing steadily, and are tragically breaking all records. Our health care system, which is severely under-resourced in normal times, is already being pushed beyond its limits. The shortage of beds is such that hospitals have reached levels of offloading not even foreseen in health protocols. The CAQ says that we are facing our “most critical weekend”. And it is under these conditions that it is allowing the reopening of schools, one of the main places of transmission of the virus!

The next developments are easily predictable. Cases will continue to increase, the education system will be dislocated and a large number of students will be forced to return to virtual classes anyway, but with an exacerbated wave of infections. The government’s laissez-faire approach over the past two years will now put children and their families at risk, sending them back to schools that are dramatically under-resourced and understaffed. 

The CAQ’s back-to-school plan reaches new heights of willful blindness and incompetence. The government insists that it is “not proven” that schools are hotbeds of outbreaks, despite the fact that 50 per cent of pre-holiday outbreaks came from schools. In addition, as everyone knows, schools are understaffed and not properly ventilated. The CAQ still won’t distribute N95 masks to teachers; Horacio Arruda’s replacement as public health director, Luc Boileau, has even stated in all seriousness that N95 masks are not needed in schools! There are still not enough rapid tests to do regular testing. High school students will not even have access to tests anymore. Positive cases will no longer be tracked, and parents will no longer be notified of positive cases in their children’s classrooms. The distribution of the third dose of vaccines has barely begun. Even before the reopening, the guidelines provided to schools by the CAQ already include extreme and outright crazy measures such as “offloading” certain tasks to free up teachers, mobilizing parent volunteers to fill in, and even giving each teacher two groups to monitor. This clearly shows that for the CAQ, teachers are mainly used for babysitting.

The teachers’ unions, parent associations and the scientific community have repeatedly voiced their concerns, but the CAQ has completely ignored all opportunities to prepare the system while ignoring the warning signs, and seems to believe that if we stop looking for and counting cases, there will be fewer of them.

The CAQ has created a situation where we are offered an impossible choice between two bad options. On the one hand, surely no one wants schools to remain closed for an extended period. Virtual schooling makes it very difficult for parents to find ways to supervise their children and compromises children’s mental health and healthy development. On the other hand, the hasty and disorganized return that the government is forcing on us without having ensured the safety of the system will inevitably worsen the wave of infection and force an inevitable chaotic return to online learning. 

The CAQ claims to be purely motivated by the welfare of children, but the hypocrisy is clear. If the government really cared about the welfare of children, they could have used the last two years to invest heavily in the education system, increase salaries, hire support staff and improve ventilation. But this is inconceivable for the CAQ. Their only priority is to ensure the availability of parents to work to generate profits for the employers.

The teachers’ unions have expressed their concerns to the Legault government. The Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE) teachers’ union has even called for a postponement of the return to class until conditions are satisfactory. In an interview with Radio-Canada, Sylvain Mallette, president of the FAE, noted the stubbornness of the CAQ and that “the objective is to no longer allow class closures, whatever the cost.” Éric Gingras, president of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, said he fears a “bloodbath” with the increase in contact. Denouncing the CAQ’s plan is necessary. But without a call for concrete action by their members, these are unfortunately statements that are easy for the government to ignore. Our national and local union leaderships must do everything possible to encourage and enable such a movement.

The union leadership is right to call for more time and proper sanitation. We must not allow children and staff to become the test bed for herd immunity. This week in France, teachers declared a strike to protest the dangerous conditions imposed by the government. We need to learn from their combativeness and organize a movement to refuse dangerous work.  

Schools are not safe. We need to demand daily rapid tests for all and staff to help administer them to children; N95 masks, low occupancy classrooms with adequate ventilation and double pay for all school system staff. In addition to being warranted by the inevitable risk, this is also a way to attract more staff. 

Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to reopen schools should not rest with a government that serves the bosses. It is not Mr. Legault, Mr. Roberge, Mr. Dubé and Mr. Boileau, sitting comfortably in their living rooms, who will risk their health and that of their families starting on Monday. The education network should be entirely controlled by the workers. It is up to them to decide if the schools are safe enough to reopen.