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Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education for Ontario, makes an announcement in Toronto on Jan. 12.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The union representing 55,000 Ontario education workers has issued a five-day strike notice – meaning they could walk off the job as early as Friday unless a labour deal is reached with the provincial government.

But Ontario’s Education Minister says he intends to introduce legislation Monday to avert a strike.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees speaks for staff including educational assistants, custodians and early childhood educators, or ECEs, at elementary and secondary schools in Ontario. It’s seeking an 11.7-per-cent annual salary increase, while the government has offered raises of 2 per cent for staff making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others.

“No one wants to strike, least of all the lowest-paid education workers who can barely pay our bills,” Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, said in a statement Sunday. “Still, we need a significant wage increase and we deserve it.”

Late on Sunday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that if CUPE refused to withdraw its intent to strike, he would be tabling legislation that would impose a contract, which he describes as more generous.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Lecce had said that he has asked CUPE to return to the bargaining table to get them to budge on their requests.

“We are at the table with a fair offer that includes a pay raise and maintains the most generous pension and benefit package, but most importantly – it keeps kids in class,” Mr. Lecce said in a statement. “If CUPE moves ahead with strike action and disruption, we will act to keep students in class so they can continue to catch up.”

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Negotiations between the government and union broke down last week, and the two sides are not scheduled to meet until Tuesday.

Other proposals by the education workers include overtime at two times the regular pay rate, 30 minutes of paid prep time a day for educational assistants and ECEs, an increase in benefits, and professional development for all workers.

Other than its proposal on wages, the government’s offer would keep all other areas the same, except for a cut to sick-leave pay.

At least three school boards have told parents that schools would be forced to shut down if education workers went on strike, including the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, and the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board. The boards said they would not be able to ensure a safe environment for students and teachers without educational workers.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Catholic School Board told parents that it would move to remote learning if a strike were to take place. On the first day of a strike, the board said, educators would spend the day reaching out to each student during class time to ensure they have the devices and information they need to take part in remote learning.

“On the second day of the strike, students will attend classes remotely and follow the same schedule as when attending in-person learning,” the OCSB says in a statement.

The Peel District School Board said it wasn’t able to “speculate” on any potential labour action, leaving some parents, such as Alison Morley, struggling to make arrangements for their children in the face of an uncertain strike.

“You can’t find information anywhere,” Ms. Morley said. “You can’t find a straight answer.”

Her son, Damon, is in the sixth grade at a school in Peel Region and he learns in an autism-contained classroom that runs with one teacher and four educational assistants for eight students. Any strike that would see assistants walk off the job would mean the classroom wouldn’t realistically be able to run, according to Ms. Morley.

If she has enough notice, she said, she can come up with a plan where they both stay home, but any sudden changes in routine would give him severe anxiety.

“I have no area set up for him, and I don’t want to set one up and then have him have that anxiety if it’s not going to happen.”

Toronto District School Board – the country’s largest such authority – said decisions were still being made on how it would respond to a strike.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said the board planned to message parents later on Sunday, but that a final decision on what will happen with learning will not be made until the school week.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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