Belgium: Without consultation with unions, schools close earlier than planned for the holidays

published 28 October 2020 updated 10 November 2020

The Belgian teacher unions strongly reacted to the announcement by the government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation to introduce distance learning for secondary school students from 28 October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were unhappy that they were not consulted and that teachers were taken by surprise and left with very little time to prepare distance learning courses.

Minister-President Pierre-Yves Jeholet and Minister for Education Caroline Désir announced in a press release on 25 October that the government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation had decided to introduce distance learning for secondary school pupils from 28 October and for the subsequent two days.

The announcement also said that, while keeping schools open must remain a priority, health authority experts were concerned about the rapid rise in the number of cases of COVID-19 in some schools and in Belgium in general.

According to the expert report, distance learning for three days, followed by the All Saints' Day school holidays, which has already been extended to 11 November, should make it easier to control the epidemic in schools and to make a fresh start in the long term.

CSC-Enseignement: The government must provide the necessary resources

"We have taken note of the sudden decision by the Government of the Walloon-Brussels Federation following the experts' recommendation", but "are unhappy at having learned of these new measures through the press", stressed CSC-Enseignement' s General Secretary, Roland Lahaye.

He added that, while his union understands the need to flatten the contamination curve by limiting contact within schools, "we believe that, despite reassurances from the experts that primary schools are doing well, they are becoming unmanageable due to the absence of pupils and teachers".

"We are asking that digital equipment be provided and that teachers be allowed to adapt their teaching methods", he said.

CSC-Enseignement gives priority to the health aspects that are too often neglected (an inadequate supply or total absence of hand sanitiser, inadequate cleaning and disinfection of premises, the provision of masks for staff and pupils, etc.). It also calls for rapid and effective testing.

"The government has said education is a priority. So, let them provide the necessary resources”, Lahaye concluded.

CGSP-Enseignement: Trade union consultation is necessary for the return to classroom teaching

The Centrale générale des services publics-Enseignement( CGSP-Enseignement) also said that they were taken by surprise by the decision taken by the public authorities of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.

Minister Caroline Désir's office informed us a few minutes before the announcement on the television news", said Joseph Thonon, the president of CGSP-Enseignement in the Wallonia-Brussels region.

"However, we understand why the decision was taken and accept that it can only be beneficial in view of the alarming deterioration in the epidemiological situation in Belgium, particularly in our schools", he added.

He pointed out that his union's members are experiencing extremely difficult working conditions and the increased numbers of absentees, both pupils and teachers, is making it impossible to maintain the current situation, which, "in addition to being untenable for teachers, is detrimental to the quality of the public service".

However, Thonon emphasised two points that the union considered vital:

  • It is unrealistic to set up distance learning in just two days, when schools have been told repeatedly that classroom teaching should remain the norm. Schools are not sufficiently prepared. In addition, the digital divide is far too wide and not every student has access to a computer. "In most cases, distance learning means, given the resources at hand, that exercises will be given to students with minimal support from teachers", he said.
  • For the period after 11 November and the return to the classroom, measures will have to be adapted to match the situation as it is at that time and the union must be consulted "so that this decision is not taken in haste again and reflects the reality on the ground".