In a recent decision – Centre de services scolaire du Lac-Témiscamingue et Syndicat de l’enseignement de l’Ungava et de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue, 2020 QCTA 641, an arbitrator was called upon to determine if a school board’s requirement that teachers undertake a dual teaching system of simultaneous in-person and online learning was contrary to their right to privacy and constituted fair and reasonable conditions of employment.
As many of us know, given the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have had to miss school to self-isolate. In order to ensure that students in this position would be able to continue their education, one Quebec school board determined that teachers would be equipped with video cameras in their classroom so that they may teach their students at home at the same time as those in class, a “dual teaching” method. While the school board did not actually move forward with this dual teaching method given the substantial push back from the union, the grievance filed against the proposal did go before an arbitrator.
The arbitrator concluded the following:
- No infringement of privacy: The dual teaching method, notably the portion by camera, was not an infringement of privacy rights in these circumstances. The purpose of the video camera was not to surveil the teachers but to permit them to provide their lessons to students at home. Further, the teachers had full control over the cameras and could adjust them as they saw fit. While the arbitrator agreed there was a risk that the teachers could be recorded as they taught, he judged the risk no greater than any student with a cell phone or iPad in the physical classroom and added that this risk was palliated given that both students using the online learning and their parents were required to sign an agreement outlining the confidentiality and guidelines of online learning.
- But not fair and reasonable conditions: The dual teaching method, however, did not constitute fair and reasonable conditions of employment in the circumstances. It was noted that the dual teaching method would require a significant increase in effort by teachers in order to effectively teach and interact with students in class and at home. Importantly, the arbitrator noted that it was self-evident that the COVID-19 pandemic had a severe and harmful impact on the education community and in particular on teachers who have had to adapt to new situations and methods of teaching while concerned for their own health and safety. The pandemic was considered an added stressor which coloured the entire evaluation of the conditions of employment.
- And yet…: Despite the above, the arbitrator allowed for the possibility that where other methods of providing education to students at home were not possible and did not allow the school board to meet their obligation to provide education to their students, then the dual teaching method could be a valid form of teaching.
While this situation was particular in that it dealt with a dual teaching method, this decision does provide important insight into teachers’ rights to privacy and fair and reasonable conditions of employment in this new era of online learning. Though each case must be evaluated on its own merits, this decision allows that online learning is not, on its face, an infringement of teachers’ rights. Furthermore, without the added stress of the pandemic, a dual teaching method, where necessary, would not be an unfair working condition and could thus be permissible.