With son's health at risk, West Island teacher forced to take unpaid year off

·3 min read

An English teacher with 23 years of experience, who usually sees more than 300 Montreal-area students each week, has had no choice but to take an unpaid year off work to protect her young son from the novel coronavirus.

Rebecca Belmonte's seven-year-old son, Samih Angelo Alame, has already undergone three open-heart surgeries and is immunocompromised.

A case of COVID-19 could be disastrous for the boy, so he has been granted a medical exemption from physically going to school every day.

However, Belmonte is still expected to lead classes in person — she's not allowed to teach remotely as she did in the spring and neither her school board nor the health ministry is willing to budge on the matter.

Realizing she was out of options, Belmonte quickly crunched the family budget, minimized expenses and got ready to stay with her son every day, ensuring he's safely completing school from home.

"We went from two salaries to one in two weeks," she said, but stepping away from the classroom for a year wasn't something she wanted to do.

"I miss my students. I miss my colleagues," she said. "It's a passion to do what you do as a teacher."

Education ministry says exemptions not an option

Regardless of her love for the job and willingness to teach online — something, she said, that went smoothly during the first wave — Quebec's education ministry has ruled that the compromised health of a loved one is not an exemption criteria.

The employee must use leave benefits such as vacation time first, but sick leave is not permitted in this case, according to Geneviève Côté, a spokesperson for the minister of education.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Premier François Legault said his government wants teachers and students in classrooms rather than online.

"We don't have extra teachers," he said. "In fact, it's the opposite. We have a shortage right now."

Because communicating with students and their parents by video conference is common, many teachers are being trained in how to use the technology, Legault said.

"But we cannot, and we don't want teachers to choose first to do video teaching," he said.

School board follows the rules

Marguerite-Bourgeoys school service centre is following the government's instructions, according to spokesperson Chrystine Loriaux.

"Teachers whose physical condition prevents them from attending class can submit a request to our human resources department," Loriaux wrote in a statement.

That request is reviewed as quickly as possible under the current rules set by the education ministry, she said.

At Marguerite-Bourgeoys, nearly 150 employees are currently exempt from being in the workplace or they were reassigned, she said.

Union says making exception won't hurt

The local teachers' union advisor, Yves Parenteau, believes many more teachers were denied the chance to work from home.

"This is more a lack of personnel management than public health management because we don't have enough employees or enough teachers," Parenteau said.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

He said public schools are being treated like a second-rate public service with a lack of staff, cleaning and building maintenance.

"Give us the equipment," he said. "The schools were closed for six months and they didn't even change one window or clean one duct in one school."

He said it is disrespectful to force teachers to go to work despite having a vulnerable family member at home.

Because there are only about 100 to 200 teachers in all of Montreal who need this exemption, Parenteau said, it is possible to be flexible.

"You can make exceptions to protect those families," Parenteau said. "This is the baseline that they should look at."