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B.C. labour board to provide neutral 'troubleshooters' for COVID-19 school plans

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's Labour Relations Board says it will provide neutral third-party "troubleshooters" to help iron out challenges arising from COVID-19 protocols in public schools.

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's Labour Relations Board says it will provide neutral third-party "troubleshooters" to help iron out challenges arising from COVID-19 protocols in public schools.  

The BC Teachers' Federation filed an application to the board in September asking for help with concerns about unsafe working conditions in schools when the government launched its restart plan. 

The union said in an email to members Wednesday that the labour board's recommendations closely reflect what it was seeking.

"All along, the K-12 restart plan was missing a mechanism to address failures in communication or required health and safety measures," president Teri Mooring said in the email. 

"This new expedited troubleshooting process from a neutral third party will help schools and local unions get changes in a much faster and efficient way."

The Education Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The union filed the application one week after school started, citing concerns about "inconsistent and inadequate" health and safety precautions in schools. 

Part of the issue, the union alleged, was that the provincial government wasn't willing to spend enough money to ensure proper COVID-19 safety measures were being followed and was instead relying on individual school districts to enforce the guidelines. 

In a response released Tuesday, labour board chair Jacquie de Aguayo said that after a review, she found that the issues involve education and health policies that fall beyond the scope of labour relations work. 

"Despite this, and to their immense credit, the named parties in the application before me are committed to establishing a problem-solving framework for addressing challenges arising from the impacts of COVID-19 and reducing risks of transmission in the K-12 system," de Aguayo wrote.

The labour board makes several recommendations including that the Education Ministry appoint a coordinator to communicate regularly and directly with school districts about COVID-19 protocols. 

Before making any new changes, the board recommends the government share its reasons with a steering committee that includes teachers, parents, support staff, Indigenous rights holders and others. 

The third-party troubleshooter should not replace existing processes for addressing challenges, but the unique context of the pandemic has created new challenges that may not fit easily into existing channels, the board said. 

"The role of a troubleshooter is, using an informal and collaborative approach, to fact-find and to make non-binding recommendations," de Aguayo said. 

Troubleshooters will be available beginning Monday to address issues on an "expedited basis," including evenings and weekends, she said. 

The federation celebrated the decision in a tweet on Wednesday. 

"This is the enforcement tool we needed to push school districts to comply with health and safety guidelines," the tweet said. 

The board said it will track the nature of disputes referred to troubleshooters and provide reports.

"This ruling is a significant achievement and was possible because of the advocacy, focus and perseverance of our members and our union," Mooring said in the email to members.

"While it does not address our concerns around the need for a broader mask policy, reduced classroom density to facilitate physical distancing and other preventative measures, it will serve to support our efforts to enforce the health and safety guidelines that are in place."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2020. 

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press