Allison Hanes: Will Quebec learn any lessons from the teachers' strike?

There are many questions to be asked about why lengthy contract negotiations still resulted in a walkout when education is supposed to be a top priority for this government.

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It’s a brand new year. And for hundreds of thousands of Quebec students, it may as well be a whole new school year.

All children returned to class this week after teachers negotiating better pay and working conditions walked off the job for various periods of time leading up to the Christmas break. Most kids missed 11 days of class. But nearly 400,000 students were out of school for a total of seven weeks, almost the equivalent of the summer holidays.

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On Tuesday, Education Minister Bernard Drainville unveiled a $300-million plan to help students catch up — without cancelling March break or prolonging the school year beyond the Fête nationale. Despite threats that he might do just that, this was surely a prerequisite for maintaining the fragile détente between the government and teachers.

This is not the time to rankle, since teachers haven’t voted on the contract offers yet. Nor is it the time for finger-pointing and recrimination. Even Drainville, who is not averse to scornful pronouncements (“Are you really comparing the job of being a teacher to the job of being an MNA?”), seemed to realize this, holding his tongue when asked if there are lessons to be drawn to avoid a similarly protracted labour dispute in the future.

There will be time for analysis, Drainville said, squinting his eyes and pursing his lips, as if to avoid saying something he might later regret. For now, he said, the focus is on helping Quebec schoolchildren make up for what they’ve missed, particularly students who were already struggling.

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He’s right. But there are plenty of lessons to be learned nevertheless.

The most vulnerable students bore the brunt of the strike. These include newcomers in Greater Montreal’s French public schools, where 22 days of classes were cancelled before the holidays, and students experiencing learning difficulties. The government will fund tutoring sessions for those who have fallen behind, as well as extra French lessons for immigrant children trying to master a new language.

Will it be enough to erase the disparities from the strike, which likely compounded the damaging effects of the pandemic? The lesson here is that this cohort of doubly disadvantaged students deserves all the support we can muster all the time, not just for the rest of the current school year.

Although there was some grumbling in recent days that no one was consulted about the plan (which, indeed, might have been nice), Drainville didn’t simply impose a one-size-fits-all solution from on high like he typically does. There is flexibility for each school to tailor its own approach — much more than expected from a government that just passed a law to give the education minister the power to appoint the top administrators at service centres and overrule their decisions.

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Drainville is correct to trust the professionals to decide which students need help, what kind and who will provide it. It makes sense to let schools set the schedules that will work best for their staff and students, including offering tutoring during lunch, after class or during March break if they see fit.

The ministry is providing the orientations and the resources while the educators are bringing their expertise to this team effort — just as it should be. Hopefully the government has learned to refrain from micromanaging.

The plan includes $42 million in additional funding for community groups that leaped into action when the strike began. They opened their doors to children who had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do when their parents had to go to work. They provided meals to hungry kids who were missing out on school lunch programs. They did so without knowing how they would pay their own bills as the strike dragged on.

This money is a recognition of the essential work these non-profit organizations do, day in and day out. But it’s also a lesson that community groups should be treated as true partners and given stable funding.

There are many questions to be asked about why more than a year of contract negotiations still resulted in tens of thousands of teachers having to go on strike without pay and hundreds of thousands of students missing a huge chunk of their school year when education is supposed to be Quebec’s top priority.

If we didn’t get it before, it should now be abundantly clear: Teachers are some of our most important workers. And children belong in their classrooms.

The lesson from this painful chapter should be that Quebec must not take education for granted.

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