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Nearly half of Ontario's elementary teachers to walk out on Super Tuesday

In a move aimed at maximizing pressure on the Ontario government before the Christmas holidays, nearly half of all the elementary teachers in the province will walk out Tuesday, closing more than 1,000 schools.

Super Tuesday, as it has been dubbed, will mark a strategic shift for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and a last stand before a Dec. 31 deadline for bargaining. More than 35,000 teachers and occasional teachers at eight public school boards will take to the picket lines, demanding that the government repeal legislation that dictates the terms of their contracts and limits their ability to strike.

Teachers began staging one-day strikes last week, but generally only a few thousand at two or three school boards have walked out at once. "They're ramping it up," said Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association. "It's a strategy to bring as much attention as possible to their concerns in a very dramatic way."

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The walkouts will hit Canada's financial centre and largest media market, the Toronto area, especially hard, as teachers from the Toronto, Peel and Durham district school boards will all abandon classrooms Tuesday. (Those three boards alone account for 20,000 of the province's 76,000 public elementary teachers.)

The Waterloo Region and Greater Essex County (Windsor-area), Lambton Kent (Chatham and Sarnia), Near North and Grand Erie school boards will also see teachers walk out.

As families were rocked by the news of a school massacre in Connecticut, and boards arranged school-based supports for students, some parents wondered whether teachers might delay their walkouts. As of late Sunday, however, plans were unchanged, and ETFO's provincial leadership declined to comment.

Some Ontario teachers wore armbands Monday as a memorial to the victims of the school shooting.

The clock is ticking for union leaders. The government is expected to block their strike action after Dec. 31, when the deadline for bargaining is over, through powers legislated by Bill 115. That legislation will also ensure that a two-year contract will automatically take effect, imposing cuts to teachers' sick days and a 1.5-per-cent pay cut in the form of three days of unpaid professional development.

"Bill 115 is at the root of all this," said Waterloo's regional ETFO president Greg Weiler.

Word of the massive walkouts began leaking Friday after members were informed, but ETFO leaders refused to confirm the pending strike action with board officials and the public. Principals and board staff were left scrambling over the weekend to inform parents to make alternate child-care arrangements.

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Sources said ETFO leaders wanted to avoid giving parents more than 72 hours heads-up in order to maximize the inconvenience of the walkouts and exert pressure on Education Minister Laurel Broten to block the strike.

In a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail, Ms. Broten said as long as the walkouts remain isolated to a single day she wouldn't act.

"Should ETFO's strike action move beyond one day, I have the necessary legal documents drafted and ready to end the strike actions that put student success and safety at risk," she said.

She called on ETFO leaders to give parents notice of their planned walkouts.

"It's not fair to leave parents and students in the dark when we know they have a plan."

High school teachers have also launched job action, withdrawing volunteer services such as running clubs and sports teams and providing academic support to students who need help after class. Like their elementary-level colleagues, members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation are angry at the terms imposed on them through Bill 115, and they have launched a court challenge of the legislation.

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The Ontario Liberals have said that cutting teachers' sick days down from 20 to 10, and delaying a pay grid that sees their salaries climb from about $40,000 to $90,000 over 10 years was necessary in order to tackle a $14-billion deficit, while preserving job-generating programs such as caps on primary class sizes and full-day kindergarten.

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