The Guardian, article by
CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — The heads of several union locals representing education staff say cohorting of students is not happening in many Island schools, and they are raising concerns about worker and student safety in the event of community spread on P.E.I.
Five representatives of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) spoke before P.E.I.’s standing committee on education and economic growth on Tuesday. Four of these representatives currently work within the school system in P.E.I. as educational assistants, bus drivers, administrative assistants and custodial staff.
A key theme of the presentations focused on the possibility of community spread of COVID-19 or of outbreaks such as those that are ongoing in Campbellton and Moncton, New Brunswick.
Lori MacKay, a CUPE national servicing representative, began the meeting by saying she was impressed by the immediate response of the province to the pandemic in March.
However, MacKay said she is currently unclear about what will occur within P.E.I.’s school system in the event of community spread. She said cohorting in P.E.I. high schools is not happening and described it as “a figment of anybody’s imagination”.
“I’ve had people say to me ‘I feel like I’m the canary in the coal mine’ or ‘we’re the sacrificial lamb going in’ because there’s no cohorting,” MacKay said. “I think we have to put our minds to how do we address it once it happens.”
MacKay added she has not received any questions from school staff about whether they have a right to refuse work, as the lack of community spread has kept such anxieties low.
But she said this would likely change in the event of community spread of COVID-19 on P.E.I.
“If a worker came to me tomorrow with no community spread, based on the model that they have today, I don’t believe that they have a case. But it’s not going to take much for somebody to say they do,” MacKay said.
MacKay suggested a worker who refused to work due to fears of safety involving community spread of COVID-19 would have some right to do so under health and safety laws.
CUPE was involved in summer consultations by education planners about the reopening plan for schools on P.E.I. Provincial staff had spoken about contingencies in case of an outbreak of COVID-19 but has few details included in the province’s return to school guideline.
In August, the Department of Education announced plans to hire close to 160 additional staff positions in advance of the reopening of schools. About 62 of these positions would be for custodial staff, close to 11 would be educational assistants and 31 would be for administrative assistants.
But in response to a question from Liberal MLA Heath MacDonald, representatives from CUPE said these new staff have provided limited relief for existing school staff.
Karen Tsistinas, president of CUPE Local 1770, which represents administrative assistants, said her local had urged the province to top-up part-time staff to full-time hours.
“We’ve kind of had several conversations with a lot of members that aren’t happy that, if their shift was over at 1:30 and they decided to take these extra hours, they’d only be paid at a level 9,” Tsistinas said.
Tsistinas said she was not sure what qualifications were required from the new hires.
Carolyn Vandaele, president of CUPE local 3260, which represents educational assistants, said the 10.5 full-time equivalent staff hired as EA’s would also be offered a different pay scale as relief workers, as allowed under the current union agreement.
Neither union president said the differing pay scales were in contravention of the union agreement provisions for temporary staff.