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Some of the largest boards in the province have told families to keep their children at home, and that teachers would provide asynchronous work amid a provincewide walkout by education support workers.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

More than a million students attending Ontario public schools will be home on Friday amid a provincewide walkout by education support workers defying the government’s passage of a bill that imposed a contract and banned their right to strike.

Some of the largest boards in the province, including in Toronto, Peel and York Region, have told families to keep their children at home, and that teachers would provide asynchronous work, meaning assignments are posted online or sent home the previous day.

Laura Walton, president of the CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said on Thursday that her 55,000 members will stage a walkout on Friday and continue their job action “for as long as it takes.” The union faces hefty fines – $4,000 a day on any worker who walks out, with a $500,000 penalty for the union – under the legislation, known as Bill 28.

Mediation talks for a new contract deal broke off between the union and the government Thursday afternoon. The union’s members include early childhood educators, caretakers, clerical staff and education assistants, who work with special needs children.

The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest board, told families that schools would be closed to in-person learning for as long as OSBCU workers remained off the job. Other boards have shared similar messages with families.

That also means all extracurricular activities and field trips would be cancelled.

“We did not take the decision to close schools tomorrow [Friday] lightly, particularly given the past few years of learning disruption for students due to the pandemic,” said Brendan Browne, director of education for the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

“We recognize that CUPE staff provide critical supports and services to students and schools, and without them, the health, welfare and safety of the school community may be compromised.”

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Ontario students have missed more days of in-person learning than any other province during waves of COVID-19. This has led to worries about the achievement gaps in learning, as well as the social and emotional struggles of students.

And prior to the pandemic, students missed days of school because unions engaged in job action – ranging from work-to-rule to one-day strikes – as tensions over contract negotiations with the government rose. They reached agreements with the province just as the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020 led to school closings.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Thursday that the government would do whatever it took to keep students in class. It wasn’t clear how that could happen if union members remained off the job.

A memo sent on Thursday from the Ministry of Education to school board education directors, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, said educators should implement “contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible.”

The ministry told school boards that if there are health and safety concerns, they must make a “speedy transition” to remote learning for students that was synchronous or teacher-led.

The memo also noted that schools should remain open to staff, “who are expected to attend their workplace as usual, and in particular to support synchronous online learning.”

Several school boards said teachers would either send home material or communicate lessons over Google Classroom or other online portals for Friday. If the protests continue, they would need to figure out how to get devices and materials to students so they could learn synchronously.

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, expressed frustration that the government was scrambling to provide direction to school boards at the last minute, and to immediately move to synchronous learning.

“They sent boards a memo at noon, when they knew what was coming for days,” she said. “Boards have made their plans, and have shared them with staff, students and families. To come in at the last-minute with direction that is impossible to implement is inappropriate, yet not surprising.”

Not all boards are closing schools on Friday, because their employees belong to different unions or they say the can manage without too much disruption to learning.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board will keep its schools open. Roughly 500 caretakers and maintenance workers belong to OSBCU, and the board said it would deploy non-union staff if needed.

With a report from Dustin Cook

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