Parents in Ontario were bracing Thursday for the possibility of a strike by education workers that would close schools to in-person learning next week.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees gave a five-day strike notice on Wednesday after bargaining with the province broke down, and workers are set to walk off en masse on Monday if a deal isn’t reached.
It would be the second time the 55,000 workers go off the job this month, and the Ministry of Education has instructed school boards to enable a “speedy transition to remote learning” if they determine they can’t safely keep schools open.
Several school boards have already said learning will move online in the event of a strike.
Khalel Shah, a Toronto father of four, said a possible strike will be challenging. While his wife isn’t working at the moment, taking care of a toddler and supervising online learning for three elementary school kids will be hard, he said.
“Definitely it is going to be difficult for parents. This looks like it is a looming crisis,” he said outside Thorncliffe Park Public School after dropping off his children on Thursday morning.
Online learning has its own set of challenges, he added.
“I got three kids in school and I got one laptop at home,” he said, noting his children are in kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 3.
The Toronto District School Board has said schools will start distributing devices to students who need them as soon as possible but noted that the process could take several days to complete.
Mr. Shah called on the government and CUPE to come to an agreement that would see kids able to stay in school.
“If CUPE actually cares about the kids that they are working with, and they care about the teachers that they are helping and assisting, they would have been thinking way ahead and had resolved this,” he said.
CUPE’s education workers, including education assistants, early childhood educators and custodians, walked off the job for two days earlier this month after the province enacted legislation that imposed a contract on them and took away their right to strike.
The government then promised to repeal the legislation and the workers returned to their jobs as bargaining resumed.
Belona Stublla, a Toronto mother of a preschooler and a kindergartner, said the previous school closure over the CUPE walkout this month made it nearly impossible to get any work done, even though she can work remotely.
“I probably managed to work for an hour the entire day,” she said, adding that she’d have to work at night after her kids are asleep in the event of a strike.
“It is not productive.”
The prospect of having her kindergartner sit through online learning was also a daunting one, Ms. Stublla said.
“She loses interest very fast,” Ms. Stublla said. “I have to be very involved so (I am) pretty much losing the entire day.”
Toronto parent Tanvir Chowdhury, who has a child in school, said kids and their families will be hit the hardest if CUPE and the province don’t reach a deal before the strike deadline.
“It is the children who are going to suffer,” he said.
The Ministry of Education said in a memo to school boards that they should move learning online if they can’t stay open to in-person learning during a strike.
“It is important that students are benefitting from live, teacher-led learning during this period,” the ministry said in the memo, obtained by The Canadian Press.
The possibility of a strike on Monday saw the operators of some children’s programs offer day camps for parents looking for child-care options.
Cameron Ribble, owner of nature program Red Fox Forest Adventures in Elmira, Ont., had offered a day camp during the CUPE walkout earlier this month. He said he spent Thursday afternoon organizing a day camp for next week after receiving emails from parents asking if a similar program would run again.
“It’s hectic to find staff last minute to run this on days when we don’t typically have programs,” Mr. Ribble said. “But we’re willing to do it because we support all of our teachers and education workers and want everyone to get the best result possible.”
Mr. Ribble said the camp will be offered to parents for $50 per day, a discount from the typical rate of $70 a day.
“We have to support our local families when schools are closed down for these strike actions and they need somewhere for their kids to go,” he said. “We want to be able to provide that for them so we’re willing to do that little bit of extra work to make it happen if need be.”
It was unclear Thursday if any talks were taking place between CUPE and the government.
CUPE said the two sides recently agreed on a 3.59 per cent wage increase, but the union is still fighting for higher staffing levels for educational assistants, librarians, custodians, secretaries and early childhood educators.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government has put forward multiple improved offers and has not asked for any concessions.