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Ontario public high school teachers to resume bargaining on Thursday

Ontario's public high school teachers are set to resume bargaining with the province on Thursday, the union confirmed on Wednesday night.

Virtual talks will mark 1st time that union has met with province since December

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, told CBC Toronto that the mediator has asked the union to return to the bargaining table and it has accepted the invitation. (CBC)

Ontario's public high school teachers are set to resume bargaining with the province on Thursday, the union confirmed on Wednesday night.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), told CBC Toronto that the mediator has asked the union to return to the bargaining table and it has accepted the invitation.

"Well, we've said all along, if we were asked to return to the table, we would," Bischof said in a phone interview Wednesday evening.

"We will have a serious look at what the proposals are."

Bischof said he was not surprised at the invitation given that the Ontario government has reached tentative agreements with the three other major unions representing teachers in the province.

Outstanding issues include the number of education workers supporting students, class sizes that are appropriate for a good quality education and mandatory online learning, he said.

"We will make a good faith effort to conclude negotiations," Bischof added.

Bargaining to be done by teleconference

Bischof said the logistics of the meeting still have to be worked out because there will not be face-to-face bargaining amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

"I don't think that anything is going to happen very rapidly," he said. "We can sort out the details."

Bischof said documents could be exchanged electronically but there will be "no physical meetings." He acknowledged that COVID-19 will change the negotiating process.

"It's pretty clear to everybody that we are working in a very different environment at this time," he added.

A spokeswoman for the Ontario education ministry says the negotiations will be conducted via teleconference.

Talks follow job action that began in November

The contract between the OSSTF and the province expired in August 2019. The union, with more than 60,000 members, represents high school teachers in the English public school system in Ontario and many other education workers.

The OSSTF began job action in the form of a withdrawal of administrative services in November and it launched one-day strikes in December, January and February, mainly in select boards. The strikes were paused in March.

When talks broke off on mid-December, both sides had only met for a day. The mediator at the time had said both sides were too far apart to continue, and had suggested that talks could restart in January after both sides had time to consider their positions.

Both sides engaged in exploratory talks in early March, but those broke down as well. Ontario Premier Doug Ford then closed schools later in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the closure has been extended until early May.

Education minister would like to save part of school year

In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics on Wednesday, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he would like to save some of the school year even though it is not yet clear whether that is possible as the pandemic continues.

"If we can save some of the school year, I think we should. And the decision point I have made, in conjunction with cabinet, is that if we can save some of those weeks at the back end, if a child could be in school, so long as it is safe, I think we should do so," Lecce said.

"However, if the chief medical officer indicates that that's not an option, then I'll have to communicate that transparently and we'll come up with alternate plans."

Tentative deals reached with 3 other teachers' unions

The OSSTF is the only one of the four major teachers' unions without a contract deal.

The union representing the province's 12,000 French-language teachers reached a tentative deal Tuesday with the government.

Memos obtained by The Canadian Press show that the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association secured annual wage increases of one per cent and benefits increases of four per cent.

Before the deals were struck, Lecce had almost entirely backed down on large increases to secondary class sizes after months of contentious negotiations and strikes.

In addition to high school teachers, the OSSTF represents occasional teachers, educational assistants, early childhood educators, continuing education teachers and instructors, psychologists, secretaries, speech-language pathologists, social workers, plant support personnel, university support staff and attendance counselors.

With files from The Canadian Press

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