Why were OCDSB elementary schools in Ottawa closed Wednesday?

English public elementary schools are closed in the capital, while those in some other jurisdictions affected by this one-day strike remain open.

1,800 striking workers fill 'broad range' of roles supporting its younger students

Teachers and support workers represented by the OSSTF march in Ottawa during a one-day strike across Ontario Dec. 4, 2019. A second strike Jan. 15 caused the closure of all schools in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

As a one-day strike by workers from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) shut schools in many communities Wednesday, some parents may be wondering why elementary schools in Ottawa are closed while those in other strike-affected boards remain open.

All 143 schools run by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) awere closed today because of the strike, which targets 13 English-language and eight French-language boards.

Extended Day programs, adult and night school programs, and extracurricular activities were also cancelled in that district. 

OCDSB's decision to close all its schools contrasts with some other school boards, including the Upper Canada District School Board surrounding Ottawa and the Durham District School Board east of Toronto, where elementary schools are open.

So why are elementary schools open in some boards but not in others?

Educational support workers

The short answer is that the list of striking workers goes far beyond just high school teachers and includes all kinds of support workers in both elementary and high schools across the province who play vital roles in the day-to-day operations of schools.

The OSSTF — despite its name not singling them out — represents around 20,000 of these support workers in addition to its 40,000 teacher members.

Support workers include custodial staff, maintenance workers, early childhood educators, educational assistants, guidance counsellors and office and clerical workers.

These staff are responsible for jobs that keep schools running smoothly — everything from cleaning walkways and making sure hallways are safe to looking after kindergarten students and those with special needs.

A strike by these workers can significantly hamper the regular operation of elementary schools, even if teachers are in the classroom.

This is especially true in the OCDSB, where OSSTF represents all educational support workers employed by the board, according to union president Harvey Bischof.

OSSTF president Harvey Bischof says government requirements for mandatory e-learning and larger class sizes would degrade the quality of education in the province. The OSSTF has been without a contract since August 2019 and launched a work-to-rule campaign in late November. (CBC)

The OCDSB says more than 1,800 OSSTF members work in its elementary schools.

"The OCDSB is one of the few school boards in the province that has the OSSTF represent such a broad range of educational support workers," the school board said in a statement.

"Without these staff at work, the OCDSB cannot provide adequate supervision of all students; ensure proper resources and supports for students with special needs; or maintain custodial and maintenance services."

On Wednesday morning, the union representing its elementary teachers, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said it would hold a one-day strike at that board and two in the Toronto area on Monday unless a deal is reached before then.

The province then announced parents of elementary school children will be eligible to apply for compensation of up to $60 if the ETFO strike goes ahead.

CUPE also involved

Several other school boards affected by the strike, including the Wellington Catholic District School Board and the Upper Grand District School Board, both in Guelph, have made the same decision as the OCDSB to cancel classes at both levels.

But the situation is different in other boards, as OSSTF does not represent all support workers in every school board.

In the Upper Canada District School Board and Durham District School Board, both of which are also targeted by Wednesday's OSSTF strike, support workers are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

CUPE reached a deal with the Ontario government on behalf of the educational support workers it represents in October of last year.

Its workers are not participating in today's strike, so elementary schools in those districts staffed mainly by CUPE-represented support workers can open as usual.

In the Hamilton-Wentworth School Board, the board is implementing a contingency plan that will see senior administrators from some secondary schools (which are closed) sent to elementary schools to provide support.

That contingency plan is only possible, though, because OSSTF doesn't represent all educational support workers in the district.

Early childhood educators and educational assistants — who provide minute-to-minute supervision and care for younger students and those with special needs —  are represented by other unions in Hamilton that are not striking Wednesday.

Ultimately, a board's decision on whether to close its elementary schools comes down to which union represents their employees and what specific job action they're taking on a given day.