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A demonstration organized by teachers' unions is held outside the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto, on Feb. 21, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s public elementary school teachers are changing direction in their job action, temporarily moving away from weekly strikes that shuttered schools to refusing to cover for absent colleagues if a supply teacher is unavailable.

The much-anticipated “Phase 6” job action protocol does not involve any strikes this week or next, which means English public elementary schools will remain open after three weeks of disruption.

However, Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), warned that job action would escalate in two weeks if an agreement with the government isn’t reached. For two weeks earlier this month, schools were closed twice a week because of a weekly provincewide strike accompanied by rotating strikes that hit every public board on a certain day. A mass provincewide strike on Friday shuttered all publicly funded schools.

Under the new job action, which will take effect on Wednesday, teachers will not fill in for colleagues who leave midway through the day or if there’s no supply teacher available. It is not uncommon for teachers to cover other classrooms or temporarily take on additional students in their own room if a colleague is absent.

ETFO’s new strategy will put a “different kind of pressure” on the government to return to the bargaining table, Mr. Hammond said, adding that it includes pickets outside schools for 20 minutes at least one day a week that wouldn’t affect learning and sending letters to school trustees and MPPs.

Unlike strikes that shut down the school system and force parents to find childcare, the job action will target school boards, which will likely have difficulty filling positions.

Many school boards struggle to find enough supply teachers, an issue that is most acute in northern and rural communities. The new sanctions would mean that principals are left to teach the class. If it’s more than one class, students would likely have to be moved to the gym or library, creating potentially unsafe conditions and taking principals away from their other duties, according to Nancy Brady, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council.

“If school boards and this government do not understand how every single educator pitches in to make public education work, frankly they are about to find out,” Mr. Hammond told reporters.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said the job action will create “challenges” for senior staff.

“Clearly it’s going to create some hardship for administration to try and figure out how we’re going to keep all kids safe,” Ms. Abraham said.

ETFO is the country’s largest union with 83,000 teachers and education workers. The union had told its members last week that it would be announcing new job action on Monday, but no details were provided.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement on Monday that he hopes "ETFO will work with school boards to ensure that the escalated work-to-rule measures do not risk student safety and security.”

Teachers and education workers have been without a contract since the end of August, and tensions with the government have risen in recent months. On Friday, all publicly funded schools were shuttered as the four main education unions took part in the first ever provincewide legal strike.

The issues for the various unions include class-size increases in high school, mandatory online courses for high-school students and a hiring regulation that gives supply teachers with more seniority an edge in getting chosen for long-term occasional and permanent teaching positions.

Benefits also remain a major sticking point, and one that led to a recent breakdown in talks between ETFO and the government. Those familiar with ETFO’s plan say benefits have been in some financial difficulty. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

But government negotiators said they would consider increases to funding negotiated in a previous contract for teaching supports in special education and other learning needs as long as the union abandoned its benefits funding proposal, according to a bulletin sent to ETFO members earlier this month.

ETFO’s three days of renewed talks with the government broke off earlier this month, and despite strike action, there has been no indication from either side of returning to the bargaining table.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said in a statement on Friday evening, shortly after the provincewide strike, that it would be pausing its rotating one-day strikes planned for this week after the mediator called all parties back to the bargaining table on Monday. The talks, however, ended late Monday with the union telling its members in a memo that the government’s negotiation team came to the table “with the same proposals to take resources out of the classroom.”

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