Parents across Ontario once again face having children at home throughout the workday as the impact of labour strife in Ontario schools threatens to spill over into other sectors, including a health care system already under strain.
The Ontario government’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause to deny 55,000 early childhood educators, caretakers and other support staff in Ontario’s public schools the right to strike has led workers to walk off the job across the province, closing schools in many places and leaving families scrambling to arrange child care.
School boards across the province have taken a range of approaches to the disruptions that began Friday as education workers, who are part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario School Board Council of Unions, walked off the job, a situation expected to continue through Monday and possibly longer.
In some boards, some schools remain open. In other boards asynchronous learning (where students work independently on assignments) is the rule, while elsewhere synchronous learning (where students attend a digital classroom all day) is mandatory.
For many families forced to look after their children at home, the thought of a return to conditions similar to the mandated school shutdowns of the pandemic was met with dread.
Kaylan Lindsay, of Lindsay, Ont., has a daughter in Grade 3 of a French immersion school in Trillium Lakelands District School Board and a pair of twin toddlers at home. She says she’s had it with online learning.
“It does not work for our family schedule. It causes us way more stress than it helps and our daughter does not do great with online learning; she doesn’t seem to absorb it as well,” she said.
She also worries that participation in digital schooling is akin to participating in strike-breaking.
“That’s almost like crossing the picket line, and I don’t think the teachers should be forced to teach online and cross that line either,” Ms. Lindsay said. “Don’t use the online tools we developed in a state of need to revoke the rights of CUPE members.”
For essential workers in the health system, the work must go on, in some cases adding stress to an already strained system.
Barbara McCully, vice-president communications at Sinai Health in Toronto, said the hospital system was already struggling with staff absences owing to illness. In an e-mail to staff, Sinai Health said it recognizes the school shutdowns will pose a challenge to parents of school-aged children and suggested swapping shifts or working with supervisors to find other arrangements that would allow them to keep working. The hospital also offered contacts for an emergency daycare service.
“We hope that our staff that need to be at the hospital have plans in place, and we’ll just have to monitor that,” Ms. McCully said. “We’ve been moving staff around all through the pandemic to make sure that we’ve got coverage on our hospital units and we will continue to do that.”
Ms. McCully said Sinai weathered the first day of the labour disruption on Friday without any major issues attributed to the school shutdowns.
“Depending on how long this may go on, I’m sure it will be a challenge for our staff,” she said.
Angela Preocanin, first vice-president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association, said the situation in many Ontario health care settings is already difficult as nurses deal with burn-out, illness and staff shortages. But nurses are accustomed to making arrangements to look after their children at short notice, she said.
“There are problems, there are challenges, but this is not going to exacerbate anything,” Ms. Preocanin said. “It will still remain the same status quo that we’ve endured for the last two-plus years.”
The Toronto Transit Commission said it’s monitoring the situation and will mitigate work-force issues and any impact on services as best it can, should they arise. Major employers such as TD Bank asked managers to accommodate employees as best they can and encouraged flexible work arrangements, where possible.
Some businesses and community organizations are offering to help parents navigate the chaos by offering pop-up day camps of various durations. Ryan Shields runs Prodigy Martial Arts, a karate dojo in Mississauga, and he is operating a one-day “strike camp” on Monday to help Peel District School Board parents bridge the gap between when kids will move from asynchronous learning to having a requirement to be online starting Tuesday.
“We’ve done strike camps before – pre-COVID – when the teachers were striking over online learning,” said Mr. Shields, who will be opening the classes up to both existing and new students looking for programming. “I had quite a few parents asking if I could set this up. … They want their kids to do something,” he said.
Mr. Shields is also a parent, with a 14-year-old in the Halton District School Board that is proposing an on-again, off-again mix of in-class and at-home learning for the coming week. His wife, who often helps him with the dojo, will have to be back home at least half of the week.
“I think both sides need to come to a solution together. They are both being stubborn,” said Mr. Shields, who says most parents he speaks to are angry at the whole situation, including the failure of schools to plan ahead. “It’s no different than for COVID, everything was last-minute and they didn’t make any plans. The students want answers, the teachers don’t have anything to give.”