Work resumed Monday in the Prince George school district, with no students in the buildings, and the order to return to their job sites did not go down well with some school support staff members who were not comfortable being asked to break their commitment to self-isolate at home.
CUPE Local 3742 president Karen Wong said only about 60 per cent of the nearly 750 active members were back on the job, three weeks after the province ordered schools closed to students due to COVID-19.
"We've fielded a lot of concerns," said Wong. "We have our members who, during spring break, self-isolated and did that whole socially responsible thing and stayed home with minimal interaction, only staying with the family you live with and only shopped once a week. All that stuff that we've been advised to do, we did that. But now we've been requested to go in to work, so we're doing what I would think is non-essential work right now and that's the struggle with our members."
Wong said school district administration has been sympathetic to the concerns of some support staff who are fearful about returning to their schools, where the 50-person limit on public gatherings ordered by the provincial health officer does not apply.
"Some members are having panic attacks, they're terrified they're going to catch (the coronavirus) and the employer has been very good about saying, 'You need to stay home.'" said Wong. "They have followed through and if we're having any panic attacks, If we have any physical illness or have an immune-compromised system or live with people who are immune-compromised we're staying home, it's not an issue.
"The employer has been working around the clock to try to get this to work. I think they're trying their best, we're just waiting for more direction from the ministry."
CUPE represents educational assistants, custodians, clerical staff, Indigenous education workers, meals workers and all other non-teaching staff in schools except maintenance positions in Prince George, McBride, Valemount and Mackenzie.
Support staff have been assigned locker clean-out duties, are bagging personal belongings of students and are being asked to do other end-of-year tasks such as cleaning fish tanks which Wong considers not essential as the province tries to limit the spread of the virus and reduce the number of new cases.
"We're really keen on doing essential services but we're also keen on holding the line and being faithful to the whole program of, let's flatten the curve," said Wong. "When they come into the building they're supposed to maintain their physical distancing and there is no limit on how many people can be in the building and that's worrisome. As long as they maintain the two-metre radius they can be in the building."
Wong said there was no shortage of CUPE volunteers willing to heed the call from the Ministry of Health to provide staff to oversee care sites at three Prince George elementary schools (Southridge, Lac du Bois and Heather Park) for students whose parents are Tier 1 essential workers.
That includes doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, social workers and other front-line health-care workers, who would otherwise be unable to do their jobs if they had supervise their kids at home. Starting Wednesday, the care centres will be open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
CUPE members will also return to their food-preparation duties to restart meal programs at the schools on Wednesday.
"We support the meals program because we have at-risk families at at-risk children who depend on them," said Wong. "So we're going to go in and get the groceries and cook the meals and bag them and have them come and pick up these meals. They won't be able to come in and eat.
"Everything that needs to be done right now, we have the people in doing and I don't see any reason why they wouldn't be there."