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Unpaid leave the option for Kamloops teachers with COVID concerns

Contract language enables teachers to use accrued sick days for medical reasons or if they are in quarantine, but if a teacher doesn’t feel safe, they will need to take the leave, Kamloops-Thompson Teachers’ Association president Laurel Macpherson said.
empty schools

Teachers with COVID-19 concerns, but no documented medical issues or available sick days, will need to take an unpaid leave of absence when in-person classes resume this fall if they do not wish to teach face to face.

Contract language enables teachers to use accrued sick days for medical reasons or if they are in quarantine, but if a teacher doesn’t feel safe, they will need to take the leave, Kamloops-Thompson Teachers’ Association president Laurel Macpherson said.

While not ideal, Macpherson said for the union, what’s more important is having a workplace that is safe for teachers when they return.

She said that is why the KTTA is echoing the B.C. Teachers’ Federation in calling for smaller cohorts, to allow for physical distancing, and broader mask use in schools this fall.

B.C.’s cohort sizes of 60 elementary students and staff and 120 at the secondary school level (the total number of people in groups expected to mingle through the school year, though classroom sizes will be smaller) is concerning and inconsistent, Macpherson said.

“You have a cohort of 60 in a school, but those same 60 students can’t go out into the community on a field trip because they violate the provincial order for everybody else, which is 50,” Macpherson said.

“There’s two very different standards and I’m not sure how the four walls of a school change those standards.”

Macpherson noted the Surrey school district plans to have cohorts of 30 students for grades 10, 11 and 12 and 60 students for grades 8 and 9, with a mix of online and in-person learning.

That plan, however, must still receive approval from the Ministry of Education.

Asked if the KTTA wants something similar locally, Macpherson said the union wants provincial guidelines changed so cohort numbers can be reduced.

BCTF president Teri Mooring has said teachers are concerned not enough has been done on preventing transmission of the novel coronavirus in schools.

The province has mandated mask use amongst middle and secondary school students in common areas when unable to physically distance from those outside one’s learning group.

The BCTF, however, wants masks required for all adults and students over the age of 10 when physical distancing is not possible — something the teacher’s union said isn’t possible in classrooms with up to 30 students together for hours.

Macpherson said it’s not reasonable to expect students in Kamloops-Thompson classrooms that were designed for 20 people to be able to physically distance, arguing it’s another inconsistency from the province not requiring masks within cohorts.

The KTTA said a cohort provides a false sense of security for teachers as the segregation exists only within the school.

Once a student is outside school hours, Macpherson said, they could be exposed to any number of their other contacts.

Mooring has said B.C. should also be pursuing an educational model allowing in-class and remote learning, especially for students with medical issues.

Kamloops-Thompson school district superintendent Alison Sidow has said that in some cases, large schools in the district may need to implement a hybrid model, in which there is some online learning and some face-to-face instruction, but noted the goal is to minimize that.

Macpherson said the KTTA hasn’t been made aware of whether remote learning will be implemented in some schools.

On Aug. 19, the Kamloops-Thompson school board was given a look at the district’s return to schools plan. The plan’s public debut is set for Aug. 26.

Macpherson said the plan sticks closely to government guidelines.

While the union would like to see some more flexibility and creative solutions, Macpherson said it understands the district has mandates to meet and that the Ministry of Education is responsible for ensuring funding support for such outside-the-box initiatives.

“I think the pressure is on the [provincial] government right now and the government needs to rethink the expectations they’re putting on districts,” she said.

Macpherson said the funding the education ministry has added to date is for cleaning and personal protective equipment and not for additional staff, which the KTTA would like to see hired.