Parents scramble for child care as Ontario education workers strike looms
CUPE, province holding last-minute talks with aim of avoiding Monday walkout
Parents in Ontario are scrambling to figure out what they will do with their children in the event of a strike by education workers Monday, as the province and the union representing tens of thousands of members head back to the bargaining table in a bid to avert disruption to classes.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) served notice on Wednesday that some 55,000 members, from office administrators to special education assistants to custodians, are prepared to walk off the job Monday if a deal can't be reached. That notice was issued just two days into a work-to-rule campaign.
On Thursday, schools boards across Ontario sent notices to parents warning that without custodians, clerical staff, education assistants and others on site, they cannot guarantee students' safety and would be forced to close until workers get back on the job.
"I think it shows us how vital our services are in those schools, and on that I think we agree with the school boards," Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.
"And I'm hoping that is one thing we can build upon and head back to the table."
Charlotte Dobo, a Toronto parent of a son with autism, said grappling with school closures is "going to be really tricky," especially for working parents and for those with children who have special needs.
"There's nowhere else for him to go," Dobo told CBC News of her son. "It's school or home and that's it, and home is far less favourable."
Parents are considering contingency plans.
"It's going to be a very difficult situation to find care for her," parent Shana Albo told CBC News. "I'll probably have to work from home."
As well as classes, child-care centres at schools run by CUPE members wouldn't operate if there's a strike. Centres run by third-party providers can remain operational if their staff can ensure a safe and clean environment.
Private daycare operators are coming up with contingency plans for increased numbers in their facilities should the strike go ahead.
Sick days a sticking point
Contracts for all of the province's public school employees expired the end of August, and the Progressive Conservative government has been in tense labour negotiations with several unions.
One of the main sticking points in contract talks has been education workers' sick leave and absenteeism.
Walton said school boards have tools to deal with absenteeism they suspect to be fraudulent. But, she said, workers' use of sick days or a short-term leave program that pays them for up to 120 days at 90 per cent salary is a "symptom" of larger problems facing education workers.
"When we talk about consistency in the classroom, I do think workloads and workplace violence have a lot to do with why folks are away."
Walton herself had to take eight weeks off work after having her jaw broken in a school.
"Without that short-term leave program, I would not have been able to provide for my family," she said Friday.
After talks resume in the afternoon, bargaining is expected to continue through the weekend.
On Friday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province "is committed to reaching a deal with CUPE, so Ontario's students can remain in the classroom."
According to his statement, all sides have agreed to a media blackout throughout this weekend's talks.
"Our government has negotiated in good faith and will continue to do so," Lecce said. "We remain fully committed to resuming discussions with CUPE to reach an agreement quickly to provide predictability to parents and students."
'The life of the school changes'
John Malloy, director of education at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), said Friday that 18,000 of the board's 37,000 staffers are CUPE members.
"The life of the school changes," Malloy said when talking about the impact of a work-to-rule campaign like the one launched this week.
Board staff held several meetings to come up with contingency plans that would let them keep schools open and students safe in the event of a full-scale strike. But because of the volume of employees and the nature of the work, Malloy said, the board decided it cannot open schools and ensure a safe learning environment.
"Our hope is that at the bargaining table this weekend, a resolution takes place," he told Metro Morning.
Asked if schools would open as normal even if a deal is reached late Sunday night, Malloy said: "We will be open even if it's moments before the start of school."
Peter Joshua, director of education at the Peel District School Board, said that board will also try to get up and running as soon as possible.
If a strike is averted, operations may not completely get back to normal Monday, but "we will make sure [students] are in a safe environment for learning," he said.
Municipalities making plans
With a potential strike looming, municipalities are warning of city program cancellations, in some cases offering alternate programming to help ease child-care crunches.
The City of Toronto said Friday that city-run recreation programs, pool activities, after-school recreation care (ARC) and other programs that are held in schools will be cancelled in the event of a strike. The city has more than 5,400 registered courses and more than 160 drop-in recreation programs at 102 TDSB and Toronto Catholic District School Board facilities.
In Brampton, just northwest of Toronto, full-day camps will be offered at about a half-dozen community centres should a strike go ahead. These programs will be available for children aged four to 13 and will operate for as long as schools remain closed, according to a city news release.
With files from The Canadian Press