School board chairman pulls back the curtain on education ministry statements

By Matthew McCully – Local Journalism Initiative
School board chairman pulls back the curtain on education ministry statements

Eastern Townships School Board (ETSB) Chairman Michael Murray pulled no punches during Tuesday’s Council of Commissioners meeting, calling out Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge on a number of announcements made by the minister during a press conference a day earlier.

The chairman said contrary to the rosy picture painted by the minister, the stark reality is that educators are extremely stressed, and have been burdened with the health and safety of students while being given little to no support.

“Yesterday (Monday), the Minister of Education of Quebec, Jean-Francois Roberge, held a press conference to announce the grand success of the first week of reopening school buildings after a period of distance learning following the Christmas break,” the chairman said. “Also yesterday, the Eastern Township School Board sent a letter to all parents, one of many communications over the last month, and this particular one concerning the risk that we may need to cancel bus runs at short notice due to the absence of drivers,” Murray commented.
He then assured attendees of the meeting that while untrained individuals can supervise a classroom of students, no unqualified drivers would be transporting children.

“There’s been very little clarity in some of the communications, and frequent changes of the rules, so I do believe it’s important to summarize our current situation. I would note that the minister’s press conference yesterday shed very little fresh light on these issues,” Murray said, adding that conditions may continue to change with little or no notice.

“You should understand, school boards are given explicit instructions on how to function, and not all of those instructions are made public,” he continued.

“For example, prevention of COVID-19 transmission in schools has effectively been abandoned. While students and staff are still required to wear masks and are urged to maintain distancing, there’s no notification, there’s no contact tracing, no isolation of contacts, no case tracking and no notification of parents when a case is confirmed in their child’s school or class. There will henceforth be no announcement of outbreaks, that is, schools and school boards are forbidden to do that,” Murray said.

According to the chairman, to address air quality issues, windows are to be opened to freshen the air but the CO2 detectors, now partly deployed, are not to be taken literally, and measures of extreme concentrations are not to be made public.

“The ministry prefers to average the data so that overnight lows will serve to offset daytime concentrations in public statistics,’ Murray explained. “I am reminded of the old adage that figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

Murray went on to say that schools are forbidden to close classes, and school boards are forbidden to close schools. “This allows the minister to announce, with great pride, that there’s been no breakdown of educational services,” Murray said, noting that moments later during his press conference, the minister admitted that in some cases, parents have been asked to supervise classes while the teacher, sick with COVID-19, teaches the class from isolation via Internet. “Also, perhaps on the margin, he admitted some classes may have been closed but not reported to him. Apparently the minister is not concerned over the quality of education of our students, as long as they attend school.”

Murray then addressed the education ministry’s treatment of staff.

“The government, clearly, is unconcerned for the health and well-being of school personnel since their exposure to contagion and illness is assumed,” he said. “There has been systematic refusal to provide high quality N95 masks to staff, or air exchangers for classes.”

Murray said the minister even claimed during the conference that there are hundreds of air exchangers available to school boards upon request, but that few requests have been received. “Actually, the ETSB did request air exchangers some time ago. They haven’t arrived yet. We’re told to expect them any day now.”

Murray then discussed the recruitment process to prepare lists of replacements for sick teachers, which includes appealing to retired teachers, transferring personnel, and inviting parents to volunteer.

“In fact, many of our retired teachers are already serving as supply teachers in schools, and some have responded to the latest request to step forward,” Murray said. Referencing the announcement that pay for retirees who accept would be at the top of the scale and would not impact their pensions, Murray suggested Roberge was operating under the assumption that the only reason they would return is for more money.
The ETSB is in the process of contacting retirees all the way back to 2015 to invite them to serve as spares, Murray said.

“The minister went on to tell parents that they have no need for information on the number of cases in schools, or whether their children have been exposed since they are required by law to send their children to school unless they are ill,” Murray explained. “Information on absenteeism is being collected, but the minister evaded any question on how many are actually attending.”

Among the many confusing instructions issued by the minister for teachers to open windows to refresh classroom air, but use discretion in cold weather, the chairman said it’s unclear whether a teacher should be more attentive to student comfort with the indoor temperature, or to student health. “Their own health, as I mentioned earlier, is not at issue,” commented Murray.

“It’s hardly surprising then, that amid such conflicted chaotic and rapidly changing orders, school staff are extremely stressed. The entire burden of student safety, health and security has been downloaded onto their shoulders,” Murray said.

“I can only ask for parents to be understanding and flexible. We have great people doing their upmost to serve your children in difficult circumstances with very little appreciation or consideration from the authorities.”

See Friday’s Record for more coverage on the Council of Commissioners meeting.

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