Question: I have just been told that the Association staff officer who works with my specialist council won’t be attending our usual dinner meeting in person. What’s up with that?
Answer: The COVID-19 pandemic has created some unique circumstances and risks around the participation of Association staff and members of Provincial Executive Council at various congregated events, including those arranged by Association subgroups. In normal times, staff and members of Council have maintained a strong in-person presence in the field, travelling to meet with large numbers of teachers in diverse locations and settings. Committees of Council have typically been convened at Barnett House, with Council and field members travelling from around the province to attend. With the return to school and the anticipated resurgence of the pandemic in the autumn and winter, this approach is now problematic and increasingly risky.
Here are some factors to consider.
- While teachers working in their schools are cohorted to a degree, convening groups of teachers from different schools or locals/districts at a single physical location potentially facilitates transmission of the virus, and may be contrary to the direction provided by Alberta Health Services officials.
- While social distancing, masking and other measures may reduce the risk of contagion associated with an event or activities around an event, they do not eliminate the risk. Evidence suggests that dinner meetings and other events where participants may be in relatively close proximity and unmasked pose a greatly heightened possibility of transmission.
- The movement of ATA staff or Council members between events in the field risks personal exposure to infection while also raising the potential of their becoming vectors of transmission to members. Even if actual transmission does not take place, the fact that individuals have been exposed to others who might be COVID-19 positive may result in them being forced to self-isolate, which has particularly serious consequences for teachers, their students and their schools.
- Although provisions are in place to return rapidly to working from home, an active outbreak at Barnett House or SARO originating with Council or staff, coupled with requirements to isolate, would compromise the Association’s capacity to deliver necessary service to members and maintain good governance.
- A considerable reputational risk attends the potential for an outbreak in a school to be traced to the attendance of a Council or staff member or teacher at an Association or Association subgroup event.
Some members have expressed the opinion that if schools are conducting “business as usual” so too should the ATA. I understand the sentiment underlying this belief, but believe it to be mistaken. The Association has expressed its concern about the failure of government and school authorities to take critical measures to reduce the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. In particular, we have consistently highlighted the impossibility of maintaining mandated social distancing in overcrowded classrooms and schools. It would be hypocritical of the Association to maintain this position while failing to take all reasonable steps ourselves to protect our employees, volunteers, members, students and the public. The Association’s practices should model its expectations for employers and for government policy.
At its last meeting, Council confirmed restrictions on the activities of staff and imposed parallel limits on travel and the activities of its own members. Similar direction has been communicated to Association subgroups.
The fact is that teachers, whether they be in the classroom, working as Association staff, or serving in elected office, did not join the profession because they looked forward to spending long hours on Zoom. I myself hate it. But we are committed to using technology to maintain an active presence among members, and your staff liaison will be attending your meeting, albeit virtually. Some discipline now will hopefully help to bring forward the day when we can again sit down face to face to enjoy each others’ company and advance together the important work and objectives of the profession. ❚