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Education Toronto school board preparing for possible fall teachers’ strikes

The board will strive to keep schools open and some programs running if teachers go on strike, an official said, but if support staff walk off the job, buildings will be closed.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

An unusual assembly line is creaking into action at the country's biggest school system, with even the highest officials at the Toronto District School Board getting ready to punch in numbers for 154,600 elementary report cards.

The board's decision to issue limited report cards by mid-July, after teachers refused to write them as part of their strike action, means enlisting not only administrative staff but superintendents who manage dozens of schools.

But that last-minute effort is still a minor hiccup compared with the magnitude of adjustments the board could have to make next fall, when elementary, high-school and support workers could all be holding different labour protests at overlapping times. The kaleidoscopic of options have the board making complicated contingency plans more than two months in advance.

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"We have classrooms where there's teachers, nurses or health care professionals, all kinds of special education support professionals," said Chuck Hay, the TDSB executive superintendent responsible for managing labour disruptions. "If one of those groups goes on strike, we always have to ask the question: what kinds of supports can we safely provide for our children? And balance that with our obligations to the parents," he said. "We can't just say: 'We can't do it.'"

Contracts for all Ontario educational workers expired last August, and each union is engaged in separate negotiations.

They have started to make concrete threats about what could happen next fall if talks don't conclude over the summer. Public high-school teachers won't supervise extracurricular activities until they reach a deal, said Lori Foote, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. A union bulletin warned that additional strike action "will be taken."

Public elementary teachers have been on an escalating administrative strike this spring and their union has said it will ramp up pressure next year if needed.

Support workers could also stage some form of protest, including special education staff, early childhood educators, secretaries, custodians and tradespeople, all represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees. CUPE's negotiations have been less public than the teachers' battles but are much more delayed.

"We're hopeful that we can get a deal, but we could be very much in the same situation as the teachers come this fall," said CUPE chief negotiator Jim Morrison.

If teachers walk off the job, the board will make every effort to keep its buildings open, Mr. Hay said. Many night programs run on school property, as well as independent daycares that serve hundreds of thousands of Toronto parents. A full strike would present more questions, he said: "Can we run the daycares all day instead of just before and after school? Are there issues about parents and children safely crossing picket lines – do we have to close some?"

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In another scenario, teachers would stay on the job but custodians would strike, meaning school buildings would close anyway, Mr. Hay said.

If teachers stop supervising sports and special events, superintendents will again be asked to step in, he said. "A superintendent can't go and supervise 25 schools at once, but they can go and help out where there are problems."

What the board isn't likely to do is hire extra staff to run activities – it's too expensive – or to ask parents to volunteer.

"You always have to remember that, regardless of how difficult it is at the moment that you're facing it, eventually all job actions end and we have to get along together and work together afterward. So, pitting the parents against the employees is not something that we're interested in furthering," Mr. Hay said

Special education is a special dilemma, with the mix of different staff. When Durham high school teachers went on strike this spring, the board rushed to connect parents of dozens of high-needs children with programs run by the province or by independent organizations, such as Kinark Child and Family Services, which works with autistic children, said Durham District School Board chair Michael Barrett. The board also co-ordinated some special funding from the Ministry of Education.

Some parents could leave work and keep their children home, but others couldn't provide the full-time physical or psychological support they needed. "They depend on the school system not only for education for the children, but also a respite to be able to go to as well," Mr. Barrett said.

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Mr. Hay said the TDSB, which has 40,000 special education students, isn't planning to provide extra support to the high-needs students if programs are shut, but it may still look at options.

One TDSB superintendent said that filling in the report cards is going to be quick.

"It's just so not a big deal," Sandy Spryopolous said. "Being a principal was the best job that I've had in my career. I'd love to supervise a dance, go to the concerts, be part of the graduations."

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