A growing number of Ontario school boards are considering closing down high schools as teachers escalate their job action – refusing to supervise students outside the classroom, enter report-card grades into the system and fill in for absent colleagues.
On Monday, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation gave the green light to 20 local unions, including teachers with the Toronto District School Board, Canada's largest, to launch strike action after it failed to reach an agreement with the province. Teachers are not expected to walk out, but will limit their duties to exclude administrative tasks and supervision outside the classroom.
The escalation comes as elementary teacher union locals are expected to be in a legal strike position later this month. Teachers are opposed to a controversial law, which forces a wage freeze, cuts teachers' sick days and limits their right to strike.
In response to the increased job action, some boards have taken special measures – from hiring extra security personnel to monitor hallways to restricting student activities outside the classroom – in hopes of averting locking out teachers. But in light of growing tensions and failed last-ditch negotiations between the provincial government and the secondary school teachers' union, the prospect of the school year thrown into jeopardy appears imminent.
Fearing for the safety of students, some boards, including Upper Canada District School Board in eastern Ontario and Trillium Lakelands District School Board in cottage country north of Toronto, quickly moved to hand senior administrators the authority to lock out high school teachers and close down schools if the situation turns dire.
"Boards will go to great lengths to keep schools open because they don't want to interfere with student instruction. But if safety is clearly compromised, then they have no choice but to close a school," said Geoff Williams, director of labour relations for the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.
Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said locking out teachers will severely compromise the education system. "If that were to happen, it raises the stakes," he said. "I would hope that the public would see where the blame lies – and believe me, it's not with the education workers. We're trying to make the best of a bad situation."
Teachers say the strike action is intended to target administrators, not students. Still, limiting teacher-supervision during lunch and in the hallways has officials nervous about student safety.
One school board took extraordinary measures to ensure safety wasn't compromised. The Greater Essex County District School Board, which includes Windsor schools, has hired extra security staff to help monitor cafeterias and hallways. "We've got at least one extra security staff in every high school," said Scott Scantlebury, a spokesman for the board.
Halton District School Board, meanwhile, is restricting activities that take students out of the classroom – things like field trips and professional development – in order to compensate for the fact that teachers are refusing to cover for colleagues who need to step out of the classroom for any reason.
And the Toronto District School Board has encouraged principals to hire extra clerical staff to help complete and distribute midterm report cards, as union leaders have directed members not to input grades into the board's computer system. Midterm reports "may be delayed at some schools and not delayed at others," said board spokesman Ryan Bird.
Many school boards said the first day of job action Monday had minimal impact on students. But Greg Pietersma, chairman of the Upper Canada District School Board, said the situation remains tenuous.
"For the next few days we should be able to keep the schools open. We'll be reviewing it on a day by day basis," he said.
As teachers scale back, many of the duties they are abandoning are falling to principals who are raising concerns about student safety. Ken Arnott, president of the Ontario Principals' Council, said supervision between classes, in hallways and recreational areas, is a major concern. He said most school boards have developed contingency plans to help cope, but that those plans are not sustainable long term.
"Without adequate supervision bullying, vandalism, graffiti, and other behavioural issues increase," he said. "As students get a sense that there are fewer eyes and ears out there we might see an increase in those issues."
Since early September, teachers have been pulling back on volunteer activities – things like coaching, clubs and parent-teacher meetings – in protest against Bill 115. Students, like Hirad Zafari, who attends Toronto's Don Mills Collegiate, said the tension has permeated into the classroom.
"As a student, I feel as though this may be not the best year to be in school, especially in Grade 12," said Mr. Zafari, who is also a student trustee. "As students, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or what's going to happen the next week."