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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is shown addressing the media in Toronto on Monday, April 13 2015.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Ontario Labour Relations Board has declared three strikes by public high-school teachers illegal, meaning more than 70,000 students will return to class Wednesday.

The ruling, which ends weeks-long walkouts, capped a dramatic day on the education front, leaving the high-school teachers unclear about their future strike options while a work-to-rule protest by elementary teachers gained momentum.

Union leaders warned the current problems will intensify by September.

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"Unless the government and trustees move off of their current position, you are likely to see every classroom in the province of Ontario shut down," says James Ryan, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association.

Before receiving the labour-board ruling, the government had moved Monday to force high-school teachers in Durham, Sudbury and Peel back to the classroom after five weeks, four weeks and three weeks, respectively.

While teachers waited for the province to pass back-to-work legislation, the labour board came through with its own ruling to send teachers back to the classroom.

The back-to-work bill, which was expected to pass on Thursday, inflamed teachers and triggered the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario to retaliate.

"If nothing changes, I will say it will not be business as usual in September, there is no doubt about it," said Sam Hammond, ETFO president.

On June 1, the elementary teachers will turn up the pressure another notch: They will not discuss students' promotions to new grades or learn new curriculum, including the controversial sex-education program to be taught in the fall, among other refusals.

"It's done nothing but anger our members," said Mr. Hammond.

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The back-to-work legislation would keep the three districts on strike open for the rest of the school year. MPPs began debating it on Tuesday and promised to continue.

"We want to make sure when the kids go back to school, they stay there," Education Minister Liz Sandals told reporters.

The precedent-setting labour board decision reopened schools, but it was unclear how long classes would last. In his ruling, board chair Bernard Fishbein imposed a two-week moratorium on the strikes, writing that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) must "purify" itself of the messages that got it into legal trouble.

Union president Paul Elliott said he wasn't sure how back-to-work legislation, if passed, would fit together with the two-week moratorium.

"This is typical of what we have been dealing with at the bargaining table," he said. "I've got the school boards doing one thing and I've got the government doing something else and it just leads to more confusion about what's going on."

The three boards had accused teachers of violating Ontario's new two-tier bargaining system by striking locally over issues that belonged at "central" bargaining. They pointed to picket signs, media interviews by union leaders and conversations with striking teachers. The union argued that it gave proper legal notice to strike and that teachers' motives couldn't and shouldn't be judged.

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Mr. Fishbein wrote that he had to look at the spirit of the legislation, even if it didn't specifically forbid teachers from expressing "central" grievances.

In the future, each case will have to be judged on its own evidence, he wrote. In this case, none of the photographed picket signs he saw identified substantive local issues, and the public statements from OSSTF leaders were, "to put it kindly, either ambiguous or in the grey area," he wrote.

"I am not suggesting that a single picket sign addressing central bargaining issues would necessarily fatally contaminate an otherwise proper lawful local strike," he wrote.

Parents have criticized the boards for waiting weeks to apply to the labour-relations board. But Michael Barrett, chair of the Durham District School Board, said he wasn't sure they would have gotten a favourable ruling in the first few weeks.

"With each successive school board, with each successive day, the language hardened until it became evident that [the teachers] were not out for local reasons," he said.

Premier Kathleen Wynne refused to speculate on the situation in September. Ms. Sandals, who is fending off NDP calls for her firing, says she is determined to negotiate through the summer if necessary.

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