MONTREAL -- The new school year has barely begun, but a Quebec teachers' association says that educators' ranks will start thinning out from people going on leave if the province doesn't offer some support.

Given how anxious and exhausted people already are, “we will soon have teachers on sick leave," said Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers.

The president of the Pearson Teachers Union says the problem is already dire.

“We’re hearing from teachers who are staying up well into the night to do lesson planning, because their days are filled with making sure the kids are safe,” says Matt Wilson, who represents 1,700 teachers as the president of the Pearson Teachers Union.

“The mental health of teachers right now is a very large concern,” said Wilson.

“The message to be heard at ministry level is 'Your teachers are crying out for help…and we need help now.'"

Yetman said she’s asked to speak with someone in the ministry on the topic.

The stakes appeared to go up today, too, as Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced that the province intends to keep most schools open even in regions that ultimately move to "red," the highest level under the colour-coded COVID-19 alert system.

Much of the strain on teachers stems from the added responsibility of organizing and maintaining a wide range of COVID-19 rules in the classroom, teachers said -- even though they feel the government’s goalposts regularly shift.

They say the education ministry has offered teachers little to no guidance on how to adapt their buildings and schedules to adhere to all the new hygiene and distancing rules.

And 43 percent of members surveyed by QPAT, Yetman's association, don’t think the government measures put in place are adequate to begin with.

Yet there are bigger worries coming up: one priority is improving school ventilation systems before winter weather forces schools to keep the windows closed. 

Another priority is receiving promised funding to create new custodial positions and begin the hiring process to fill those jobs.

Teachers are “100 percent worried about outbreaks in the school," said Wilson. "This idea that the classroom is somehow a bubble that is distinct from the community is ludicrous."

As of September 15, 410 students and staff members at 237 schools in Quebec have confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the most recent government report.

Teachers aren't asking to shut down schools again, said Wilson -- they are happy to be back with their students. They just want more support.

“We need to be back in school," he said, "but we need to do this properly and safely.”


Classroom learning is critical for children, and especially at this stage of the pandemic, the Canadian Pediatric Society says.

That's because in the first six months of the pandemic, they saw the effects that schools' cancellation wrought.

"As front-line care providers, we have seen the drastic impacts to mental health that isolation has had on children and -- in particular -- vulnerable, racialized and Indigenous youth," said Dr. Sam Wong, the society's president, in a statement released Thursday.

For kids, schools mean not just education but also social services and safe environments, Wong wrote. He urged governments at all levels to make it a priority to keep schools open. 

Governments can ensure continuity, the doctors' group said, by following aggressive measures to stem community spread and regularly consulting with pediatric and infectious diseases specialists.

The group also encouraged government officials to stay in regular touch with the students themselves to evaluate how they are feeling about online learning, masking and physical distancing.