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Ontario’s elementary school teachers have begun work-to-rule action across the province.

The union representing Ontario elementary teachers briefly returned to the bargaining table with the provincial government Monday as teachers began work-to-rule action across the province. But the talks were short-lived, as the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario walked away from the table after just a few hours.

"The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario returned to the central bargaining table this morning at the mediator's request," ETFO president Sam Hammond said in a statement. "It was our expectation that the government and the Ontario Public School Boards' Association [OPSBA] would remove concessions from the table. That did not happen and the meeting ended at 11:00 a.m."

The first phase of the work-to-rule action means elementary teachers across all 32 of Ontario's English public school boards will not perform tasks such as providing comments on students' June report cards and overseeing standardized testing. Teachers are still in the classroom, however, and classes have not been cancelled.

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Secondary school teachers in the Durham, Rainbow, and Peel districts are still on strike, with classes cancelled for all high school students while teachers walk picket lines. Students in Durham have been out of the classroom since April 20, and are entering their fourth week away.

Negotiations at the central table are taking place under the mandate that public service contracts must be "net zero," meaning any wage increase must be balanced by taking away something else.

"We always knew that net zero bargaining would be difficult," said Education Minister Liz Sandals. "But I think if you look at our record, we actually do have a record of finding ways to resolve difficult issues and we are certainly committed, be it ETFO or OSSTF [Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation], we are certainly committed to resolving issues at the bargaining table."

Ms. Sandals said Monday she is "getting very concerned" about the high school students. She noted that on Friday she met with representatives from colleges and universities to make sure "we have solutions to support the kids that have teachers on strike and ensure that those kids can graduate and move on."

Before ETFO left negotiations on Monday, Premier Wynne said in the legislature during Question Period that she was "pleased" to see the union had returned to the central table.

"We do believe in the collective bargaining process," she said. Ms. Wynne added that she was not happy about the fact that so many high school students are still out of the classroom.

Local talks between school boards and the OSSTF are in various states of progress.

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Ontario Public School Board Association chair and Durham District school board chair Michael Barrett said the Durham board is hoping to schedule more bargaining dates at the local table with the OSSTF this week, but nothing has been confirmed. The board and the union had a meeting Friday, which was a prearranged date before the strike began.

OSSTF District 19 (Peel) president Mike Bettiol said there is a date at the local negotiation table scheduled for Wednesday. In the Rainbow district in Sudbury, OSSTF District 3 president James Clyke said the union is having a "hard time" setting negotiation dates, but they are scheduled to bargain with the school board on May 19 and 20 – the first time back at the table since they began strike action April 27.

"It's difficult to make sure people's spirits stay up because they would so much rather be in the classroom, but at the same time they realize this is an important scenario they find themselves in," Clyke said of teachers on strike. "We're doing the best we can to reignite the negotiations and put this thing to an end."

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