The following are questions and answers from a series of interviews Labour Fightback conducted with teachers from across the country. We have shortened the answers for space. The teachers interviewed have requested to keep their identities anonymous to prevent reprisals from their school boards.

Teachers interviewed:

A long-term occasional teacher in Toronto, Ontario

A high school occasional teacher in Ottawa, Ontario

A high school teacher in Lasalle, Quebec

A high school math and science teacher in Nunavik, Quebec

A junior high school teacher in Edmonton, Alberta

New Year school re-opening a disaster long time in the making

As schools re-opened across Canada, the teachers we interviewed for this article revealed to Labour Fightback the life-threatening conditions faced by students, teachers, and their families, who stand exposed to the Omicron variant. 

“Our school has very poor ventilation due to its age,” said the high school teacher in Toronto, “we also have zero plan in place to address the mass of students walking around hallways in close proximity… the government has left the return to school in the hands of understaffed, underfunded, and overworked teachers and administrators who are left to follow contradictory and impossible guidelines.”

The high school teacher in Ottawa details: “[my] school included a 10 minute break halfway through each period. During this break, students are free to enter the hall and come into close contact with students of other classes… If a single student is infected, they have the potential to infect large portions of the school at once!”

The teacher from Lasalle, Quebec highlights the dangers from a lack of testing: “The kids that are positive have to tell the school, but we have no way to know if their test is really negative when they come back. We have to trust the parents.” Covid-19 has also been “ripping through the community,” according to the teacher from Nunavik, “…all communities are in a ‘red zone,’ the highest alert.”

The junior high teacher from Edmonton reveals the hypocrisy of the Kenney government when they argue about the mental health of children, explaining that the lack of resources for students was a problem before the pandemic and has been exacerbated by it: “…poverty, food insecurity, and turbulent homes are not at all uncommon in my classroom. Many get two out of three meals per day from school, and when they have to stay home, they may not have enough to eat. For others, school is the only place they have supportive, loving adults who they get to see on a daily basis. Some of my students experience severe mental health issues including suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety, and our counsellor on-site is the only access they have to therapy.” With an irresponsible plan to force the dangerous re-opening, the Kenney government worsens the conditions in which students receive these supports.

Students share frustration with teachers

“Our school board is always under fire for poorly serving students with abysmal results,” says the teacher from Nunavik, “the school board is just trying to cover its behind and stay under the radar of the Ministry of Education with this reopening.” 

The teacher from Ottawa explained his students are looking forward to in-person learning, but that “some students are choosing not to come in-person…In general, the students are very tired of online learning, but anxious about the return to in-person as well.”

The teacher from Edmonton says: “my students are tired of everything. Absolutely exhausted. They feel the weight of the inaction and complacency of our government more so than some people might think. My students are not oblivious to what is happening in the province. I used to put on the news in the morning as they came into class, but every single day it was a barrage of stories detailing how many people were in the ICU, how many kids caught Covid that week, how many people died, what restrictions were dropped. At a certain point, it felt cruel to continually subject them to endless updates about the nightmare they’re already living in. They already know that Omicron is more likely to infect them, but that their unventilated class of 25 kids isn’t considered an unsafe gathering. They’re angry, grieving, and numb, and who can blame them? They’re continually congratulated for their sacrifice and resiliency, but no one is telling them that they shouldn’t have to be this resilient at 13 or 14 years old, that they shouldn’t be the ones bearing the burden of the failures of full-grown adults in government.”

Teachers respond to dozens of Manitoba high school walk-outs by students

On Jan. 17, 2022 hundreds of high school students, from dozens of schools in Manitoba organized a coordinated walk-out to protest school re-openings amid the Omicron wave. They were inspired by thousands of student walk-outs for similar reasons across the United States, including New York and San Francisco. 

The teacher from Lasalle responded to this news: “Oh I think it’s amazing! I’ve talked about it with my kids. They were thinking they should do it too. I think they have all the rights to do it, because after all, it’s their health.” 

The teacher from Toronto responded: “Teaching unions are often publicly attacked for taking job action. We are told we are being selfish and putting our needs before the kids’. When kids step up and say ‘actually no, we are being negatively affected and we demand change’ is hugely helpful. Kids standing up will help us all.”

The teacher from Ottawa: “That’s awesome! I love to see students taking an active role in politics and standing up for what they believe in. I encourage all students to show the governments across North America that they aren’t just pawns in their game. Perhaps they can inspire some of the workers to also take action against this unsafe opening.”

Teachers respond to union leaderships and what actions are needed

Amidst the Omicron chaos, the leaderships of various trade unions across the country have made public statements expressing concern and pressuring governments to act. However, across the board, there have been no coordinated union actions such as work refusals or protests. 

Teacher from Lasalle: “I don’t think my union leadership wants to fight to fix the situation… they are so scared to pay amends and to be too radical… I was very disappointed about my union leadership.”

Teacher from Nunavik: “I feel betrayed by my union leadership, who is hiding behind the CNEEST instead of fighting against it. Instead of making demands that we all know the government will not take seriously, it should take the time to explain to the population why everyone is being sent back to work in these conditions. It should rally parents, teaching staff, and other community members who understand that we are being used to ‘continue as usual.’ All that matters to the government is that parents can go back to work. They do not care about students’ physical or psychological well-being. They do not care about ‘learning loss.’ All they care about is maintaining business as usual. Unions need to call it as it is and organize to protect our population. I cannot believe that they are determined to negotiate in ‘good faith’ with governments in situations like this. We already know about classrooms closing down in the South (this means over 60 per cent of students are infected in the classroom) and parents being called in to supervise classrooms. It’s unacceptable that we are letting kids and education staff literally get sick for business to continue as usual. You cannot negotiate in good faith with people who view you and our youth as disposable.”

Teacher from Toronto: “The union leaders have been complacent and pathetic. I was told that if I have to be isolated due to COVID exposure I will not receive pay unless I use my few sick days (which I already used during a previous COVID exposure). I asked why and she said as an LTO teacher I don’t get those protections. I was also told I need to provide at least three to five days worth of lessons during my isolation. Without pay. My options were to lose pay, or come in sick. How is that possibly acceptable? Well I was told they tried to negotiate those terms but the government wouldn’t budge.

“If union leaders won’t call a strike over forcing employees to do unpaid labour or expose themselves and others to a deadly virus, just where IS the line?! Does Doug Ford need to come to school and shoot me in the kneecaps before the union will care enough about me to protect my basic rights?”

U.S. teachers win concessions with work refusals, Canadian teachers respond

In Boston, Oakland, and Chicago, teachers have staged sickouts and collective work refusals—essentially strikes—that won concessions from the government for safety in their classrooms. 

The teacher from Nunavik responded, “that it is inspiring and probably based on the fact that U.S. teachers live more precariously than we do. In their shoes (ex: having to work two jobs to pay the bills), we would also stage work refusals. There’s only so much people can take.”

Teacher from Ottawa: “That’s great news! Teachers have been asking nicely for weeks, and have had hardly any safety measures properly implemented. The only thing that will make this government shift its position is action and a show of solidarity by the teachers and other education workers.”

Teacher from Toronto: “The unions here have gotten complacent and overly worried about playing politics and chasing good ‘public opinion’ when their purpose is to protect us; grassroots efforts outside of the union are the only way anything is happening right now we will never win following rules meant to keep us losing.”

Teacher from Lasalle: “I dream of doing that too at my school and union. I’m in the union as a delegate. I’ve proposed in our meeting the week before the opening to do an assemblee generale des membres so that we could vote for a strike. They rejected my proposition. But, we did an information consultation and 300 teachers came. They were so worried and some of them didn’t understand why the union wasn’t more active. But we managed to get the union to organize a protest in front of my school. We did it. But the media did not show the part where I was saying we should do a mass work refusal in response to dangerous work… of course.”

Labour Fightback applauds the examples of active resistance by these teachers, some of whom are our members. Their fight back, which includes students across the country and across the border, is a small yet growing example of what is needed. 

According to the Canadian Press, in Ontario alone:  “…11 education-sector refusals made up more than half of the total 18 pandemic-related work refusals that the ministry has investigated so far this month. Between Jan. 2020 and Dec. 2021, the ministry said there were 53 virus-related work refusals in Ontario schools. Work refusals are launched by individuals, not organized by unions.”

It’s time these work refusals were organized by unions. As the virus rages on, federal and provincial governments do everything in their power to defend the interests of big business by risking the lives of working class people and their children. Working class people cannot rely on those who defend the profits of the rich; they need their own leadership. This begins in the unions, where organized structures exist, yet leadership is currently lacking. Now is the time to organize all those who are already standing up!