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Teacher walkout sparks concerns over child-care options

British Columbia Teachers' Federation President Susan Lambert announces B.C. teachers will begin a three-day strike Monday, during a news conference in Vancouver on Thursday March 1, 2012.

Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

As a controversial education bill begins its journey through the legislative process and parents scrambled for child care, the early outcome of a teachers walkout seems to be confusion over what to do with the kids.

Education Minister George Abbott said schools would be open despite the walkout, slated to begin Monday, and that parents who had no other option could count on having a safe place for their children.

"We are not encouraging children to attend school," Mr. Abbott said Thursday on a conference call with reporters. "But in those instances where parents have no choice, based on employment or lack of child care … the schools will be there to offer not instruction, but at least a safe environment for those three days."

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Some districts told parents not to count on that option.

"We've sent letters to the parents asking them not to bring their kids to school," District 87 (Stikine) superintendent Bryan Ennis said on Thursday. "Because we can't provide adequate supervision for them."

The Vancouver School District, citing safety concerns, has asked parents to arrange child care for the three days that teachers are expected to be off the job next week, as has the Surrey district.

Other districts around the province, including Kootenay Lake, have issued similar guidelines.

Teachers plan to be off the job Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and possibly one day a week in subsequent weeks, according to limits set out by a Feb. 28 order from the B.C. Labour Relations Board.

Under the order, pickets are not allowed on school property – meaning that principals and vice-principals can get into school buildings, along with support and custodial staff.

CUPE BC – which represents about 26,000 education assistants and support staff in B.C. schools – has told its members to decline student supervision, saying in a March 1 bulletin that such duties are "teacher and administrator work."

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At Vancouver's Strathcona Community Centre, programmer Ron Suzuki was bracing for an influx of children next week.

"When you have closures that just come up, even with two days' notice, a lot of parents are in scramble mode," Mr. Suzuki said. "Our community serves the working poor – they don't have the luxury of taking the day off."

In announcing the walkout on Thursday, British Columbia Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert acknowledged the inconvenience and said the union was forced to take action by "bullying" legislation.

Bill 22, introduced hours after the LRB cleared the way for the BCTF to escalate its job action, would impose a cooling-off period and bring in a mediator. The mediator would be bound by the government's net-zero mandate, which stipulates that new contracts can't cost more than the old ones.

Asked if there was anything that could head off the walkout, Ms. Lambert on Thursday said she would meet with Mr. Abbott "in a heartbeat" if he called her to negotiate.

"I'd welcome a call from Susan as well," Mr. Abbott said when asked about her comment. "Over the last six months I have offered on many occasions to sit down with Susan and walk her through some of the areas in legislation which now apparently are of chronic concern.

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"In every case, I was advised that until I put something other than a net-zero offer on the table, that they weren't prepared to explore those issues."

Barring a weekend breakthrough, debate on the bill is expected to resume Monday. The legislation is expected to pass some time in the next few weeks, despite opposition from the New Democratic Party. Mr. Abbott has said he would not support any steps to curtail debate, saying the bill merits a full airing.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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