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Teachers march outside Market Lane Junior and Senior Public School in Toronto on Jan. 20, 2020.

Fred Lum

Ontario’s public elementary schools will be closed for two days next week as teachers step up job action amid stalled contract talks with the provincial government.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the province’s largest education union, with 83,000 members, said Monday that it would stage a full provincewide walkout on Feb. 6. This would be accompanied by a week of rotating strikes that would hit every public board on a certain day, unless an agreement on a new contract is reached with Doug Ford’s government. That means schools would be shut down twice in one week by job action, leaving thousands of parents scrambling for child care.

The union told its members in a memo on Monday that the one-day provincewide and one-day rotating strikes would continue “each week” going forward unless there is a deal.

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No talks have been scheduled between the two sides.

All the main education unions in the province are involved in some type of job action, from work-to-rule to one-day walkouts, for the first time in more than 20 years, as tensions between the province and education unions continue to rise.

The job action next week would affect elementary students at the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, and the York Region District School Board on Thursday with the provincewide strike, and then again next Friday by the union’s rotating strikes. Other school boards would be affected in a similar way.

“It’s regrettable that we’re in the situation we’re in. Our members would rather be nowhere else than in the classroom, but they are taking a stand for publicly funded education short- and long-term," ETFO president Sam Hammond said Monday.

However, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement that the “union-led” escalation is hurting families, who are forced to find child care on short notice. “Repeated escalation at the expense of our students, to advance higher compensation, higher wages and even more generous benefits, is unacceptable for parents and students in our province,” he said.

Mr. Lecce recently announced that parents would be able to apply for as much as $60 a day for each child in compensation if strikes shut down their children’s elementary school or school-based daycare.

School boards have said that if the walkouts happen, they would have no choice but to shutter elementary schools. “There would not be sufficient supervision to ensure the safety and well-being of students,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.

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ETFO began rotating strikes last week, and is continuing them through this week. The union has also been engaged in work-to-rule, and starting next Monday, members will not participate in extracurricular activities “at any time.” Previously, ETFO had directed members to not supervise extracurricular activities, but only those outside the regular school day.

The union also told its members in November not to electronically input data for Term 1 report cards as part of its job action. School boards recently said that they would not be sending home report cards, which are typically issued in February.

Mr. Hammond acknowledged that it is difficult for families when teachers go on strike, but said they need the public’s support “to get this government to be accountable for the cuts they’re making and to get back to the table.”

At issue for the various education unions are class-size increases in high-school, kindergarten and junior and intermediate grades, and mandatory online courses for high-school students. Mr. Hammond has also said that, despite Mr. Lecce’s public support for full-day kindergarten, government negotiators had offered to keep it only if the union agreed to the government’s 1-per-cent wage-hike cap.

Mr. Lecce has maintained that the main stumbling block in negotiations has been wages, with the unions asking for a 2-per-cent increase in the face of the government's wage-cap legislation, meant to limit public-sector pay increases to 1 per cent.

Union leaders, however, have argued that their members are simply asking for cost-of-living increases in line with inflation.

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NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government came to the bargaining table with the idea of imposing cuts to programs, instead of looking to negotiate.

“What on Earth could possibly be more important right now than making sure our kids are in class and investing in public education? That is I think foremost for most Ontario families and this government is failing very badly,” she said.

With a report from Laura Stone

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