Will the BCTF lead on professional guidelines for schools during COVID-19?

As a union of professionals, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is a democratic union that represents over 43,000 teachers in the province. In our commitment to solidarity, we agree to vigorously debate the issues and matters before our profession, and then to respect our democratic processes by recognizing that once we decide, the collective position prevails.

This is an important part of union democracy, one that I wholeheartedly agree with. Votes and elections have consequences. Once we have made a vote or we have elected certain leaders to our decision making bodies, this reflects our collective position as a profession. Agree or disagree on the specifics, it is our job to back up the collective and to make things work out. (So long as the collective continues to respect the core ethical principles of the profession – but that’s an entirely different matter and not one that I see applying to the issues before us now).

Today is the last day that the BCTF’s Executive Committee is planning to meet before the end of August. There will then be one final meeting of the Representative Assembly at the end of June. The Annual General Meeting met in late May. Soon all of the critical decisions related to planning and preparing for a possible return to school in the fall must either be made now or emergency meetings will need to be called before the end of August. Today’s Executive Committee meeting is especially important given its role in laying out specific plans for the union.

The Executive Committee made an important step earlier this month, when it called for the formation of a government Pandemic Planning Committee to bring diverse stakeholder perspectives to the table, including those that are based on teachers’ expertise and direct experiences in schools and classrooms. Another important step was this week’s meeting of the Professional Issues Advisory Committee (PIAC), which, as an advisory body, makes no decisions on behalf of the union, but does make recommendations to the Executive Committee.

Earlier this week, PIAC made two COVID-19 related recommendations to the Executive Committee. One would widen the circle of engagement for the government planning committee – by holding an issues session on professional issues related to the pandemic. This would help prepare BCTF representatives that may be appointed to the government’s planning committee. The other recommendation is for the BCTF to develop its own set of professional guidelines for schools.

The recommendation for professional guidelines for schools builds on recommendations that were made in a letter to the Executive Committee, which was sent on May 21, 2020. The letter was sent during the period when, due to COVID-19, advisory committees lacked formal processes for sharing advice with the Executive Committee.

PIAC’s recent recommendations raise two important questions for today:

  • Will the Executive Committee decide to hold an issues session?
  • Will the Executive Committee decide for the BCTF to develop teacher-led Professional Guidelines for Schools During Public Emergencies?

These two questions are urgent matters for the teaching profession and public education because:

  • The teaching profession has two paramont duties during this pandemic: (1) First and foremost, protect teachers’ health and safety at work and provide students with safe schools during all stages of the pandemic; (2) Defend the integrity of public education through the provision of education on a universal and equitable basis.
  • Without clear direction from the government, a lot of the issues that teachers and schools face are hypothetical and emergent, making it all the more important for the teaching profession to be prepared and proactive for all possibilities in September and beyond.
  • Local teachers’ unions are struggling without enough supports as local school districts apply COVID-19 measures in sometimes unclear and confusing ways (absent leadership from government). Professional guidance for schools will help local teachers’ unions and provide some of the support they require.
  • Now is the time to have a clear plan from the profession itself, one that the BCTF on its own can implement, that helps us prepare for when we come to the table to collaborate with and help guide government plans and actions.
  • Communities and students depend on our expertise as teaching professionals to keep students safe in schools, and the teaching profession is uniquely qualified to help lead this process.
  • The BCTF represents teachers across the province and across many contexts – this makes coordination between teachers across the province essential in how we develop our policies as a union and guidelines for schools.

Teachers’ professional voices should be driving the conversation for how to ensure safety for students and educators and for how to ensure quality education for all students during COVID-19. Teachers, through our union, are recognized as the defenders of integrity for public education. We can lead and this requires a process for engaging with members, supporting locals, and developing professional guidelines for schools.

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I am the founding organizer of the Critical Education Project, a network of North Coast and Skeena region educators.

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