Member Services is ready to handle teacher questions

Alberta teachers cope with COVID 19 pandemic

April 7, 2020 Mark Milne, ATA News Staff


Robert Mazzotta,
Member Services

Members are desperate for some clear and consistent direction during these uncertain times, and they’re turning to the Alberta Teachers’ Association for help. 

Am I working from home? Why can’t I? What is expected of me? Will my temporary contract be honoured? These are some of the most frequent questions being asked, said Robert Mazzotta, co-ordinator for the ATA’s Member Services program area. 

Mazzotta assures teachers that Member Services is still fully operational despite the pandemic. 

“We are still communicating with our members through phone and email as we always have,” Mazzotta said. “The physical building may be closed to the public, but there is a duty officer available in Edmonton and Calgary every day, just like normal.” 

When the province initially announced that classes were cancelled indefinitely, Member Services saw a huge increase in the number of incoming calls. The call volume has tapered off somewhat due to spring break, but Mazzotta expects an increase in the coming weeks as teachers head back to work and settle into their new learning environments.

Consistent direction needed

While a template of academic requirements for each grade level was released by Alberta Education, there has been little direction to school boards about how it should be delivered. That is the source of the majority of questions that duty officers have been fielding, Mazzotta said. 

Despite the lack of attending students, many teachers are still being told by their principals and school boards they must continue to show up to school for work, a position not supported by the Association. 

“The prime minister said work from home. The chief medical officer is saying work from home. They’re encouraging everyone to work from home,” Mazzotta said. “So, the question to superintendents is, ‘Why are you saying no?’”

However, Mazzotta points out this isn’t a systemwide problem. 

“Most are saying ‘Yup! Work from home. Here are the guidelines. Here’s what we expect of you. Here’s the technology. Go ahead and do it.’” 

He says the problem lies with those schools that are making teachers report to the building for work. Teachers are feeling unsafe.

There is a greater chance of becoming infected if they have to report to the school, maintains Mazzotta. They will be interacting with other people and handling potentially infected material. 

“We’ll be aggressively pursuing Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) guidelines with principals and boards,” Mazzotta said. “This pandemic is a health hazard and unless you can minimize it, you need to let teachers work at home.”

Cuts to funding

Another common concern with teachers is the recent layoffs of substitute teachers, educational assistants (EAs) and administrative support staff. 

When the government previously stated that education funding would continue, many teachers developed their lesson delivery based on the use of EAs. With those assistants laid off by the end of April, many teachers need to adjust their plans, which will result in a significant amount of added work. 

An even larger issue is the delivery of material for students with limited access to technology, as some schools were planning to use EAs and bus drivers for this.  

“How will that actually happen without having somebody to do it?” Mazzotta said. “Teachers may now not be able to reach students because of factors beyond their control.”

Substitute teachers have also been calling with questions about their status. While schools may continue to use substitute teachers, the funding for their use has been cut by the government. If school boards wish to continue using subs, funds from other areas of their budget or reserves must be used to pay them. 

Mazzotta says substitute teachers can apply for employment insurance and other emergency assistance programs offered by the federal government during the pandemic and recommends they contact Teacher Welfare for the details. 

What lies ahead

When asked what challenges teachers may face once the pandemic has passed, Mazzotta said the biggest hurdle will most likely be “where do you start?”

“If you could guarantee that everybody had the same access to education, you could all start from the same stage. But the reality is going to be that, next year, where September should be a general review of what you did last year, it will now have to hold a much heavier focus on ensuring the key competencies are covered before teachers and students can actually move on.”

For the time being, Mazzotta is advising members to take care of themselves.

“Stay calm. Get exercise where you can. Keep in contact with people. Maintain your mental health, and be mindful of what you can control and what you can’t.” ❚


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