Plans Underway to Reopen Schools
Unions express concern at ‘divide and rule’ meetings
A firm statement from the highest political office has done little to quell the concerns of the country’s three major teachers’ unions, whose leaders feel disrespected by the Ministry of Education.
Pedro Shepherd, the head of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) says he will not be attending as a teacher nor in his capacity as a union leader since the union has not been invited to provide any representation for its members.
He however stressed that the union would not seek to deter its members from attending the proposed talks.
“If they [teachers] believe that the Prime Minister can write them and say ‘come to a meeting’, and they want to go, then fine. On the other hand, if they feel that the Prime Minister writing them is bypassing their representatives, that is up to them. My choice as a teacher is that I will not attend and as President of the Barbados Union of Teachers, I will not attend to represent the interest of teachers, because I was not invited to do so,” said the BUT President.
In the absence of a plausible explanation from authorities, the BUT president described the ministry’s decision to bypass the unions and speak directly to their members, as an underhanded attempt to “divide and rule”.
The Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) on Monday again condemned the ministry’s approach, noting that members were in “great fear” at the prospect of sharing an enclosed space with more than 2,000 people in the midst of a pandemic.
Last Wednesday, the unions were informed that their representatives would have ten meetings with education officials to discuss the September 21 return to physical classes and relay the collective concerns of teachers. After informing unions of this arrangement the following day, the Chief Education Officer approached teachers directly, inviting them to three meetings that would include much larger numbers.
Despite pushback from the unions in a letter on Friday, the Santia Bradshaw-led ministry did not budge. Then on Sunday, Prime Minister Mia Mottley reiterated the position, adding that the proposed meetings were not a “union discussion”, but an attempt to define a “common mission” and allow all stakeholders to understand their roles amid the peculiarities of the ongoing pandemic. The ministry then confirmed its position on Monday saying in a statement that preparations were fully made at the venues where the meetings will be held.
On Monday, the BUT, along with the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU), and the Association of Public Primary School Principals (APPSP) held fast to their belief that Government’s “unilateral” decisions were “disrespectful”.
“It was an attempt in our view to divide and rule,” said Shepherd, on behalf of the BUT. “We are the representative body of the teachers. We were meeting with the ministry. The ministry came up with a plan, and although we had a few challenges with it, we said that it could work. Then on the next day, somebody else is saying this is not what it is going to be. Why have these changes been made without coming back to consult?
“The three unions felt like we were disrespected, and there is an element of bad faith bargaining on the part of the Government and we hold fast to the view that we are not part and parcel of what is happening,” he further explained.
In a statement on Monday, BSTU President Mary Redman indicated that in the interest of their health and wellbeing in the COVID-19 environment, union members are asking that Government stick to its own protocols and host gatherings of no more than 500 people.
Ms Redman added: “There are also concerns about the disrespect shown to the unions and the manner in which plans were changed one day after agreement, with no prior notification to the unions. Concerns surround the extent to which any such large unions within a two and a half-hour timeframe can be productive in the manner that teachers were originally expecting, and queries arise at the lack of schedule of meetings for ancillary staff.”
“Letters and other forms of attempted intervention to explain our position to ministry officials and seek some measure of amendment and compromise, in an effort to allay the fears of our members, thus far have proven futile.”
Principals were given a September 2 deadline by education officials to complete a lengthy to-do list for the restart of school, a deadline which the unions agreed could not be met. They are therefore requesting, an extension of an additional week for completion.
Ministry officials are scheduled to meet with secondary school teachers tomorrow Tuesday from 9–11:30 a.m. and primary school teachers at the same time on Wednesday. Both meetings will take place at the Wildey Gymnasium. On Friday, meetings will be conducted with nursery school teachers from 9–11:00 a.m., and with the staff of special needs schools from between 1:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon.
Despite the concerns, union officials have expressed their commitment to further dialogue with Government on the proposed resumption of school.