Bill 28 expected to be repealed as education workers vow to end strike

Education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees are expected to end the walkout which has seen most school boards in Ontario close their doors to students.

The news comes as Doug Ford's Conservative government promised to repeal the newly enacted Bill 28 and return to the bargaining table as long as CUPE employees would return to work in the meantime.

The union, which represents 55,000 Ontario education workers, said protest sites “will be collapsed” as of Tuesday with the expectation that the provincial government will repeal it's new bill in its entirety.

Ford, and Education Minister Stephen Lecce, had threatened to levy fines against striking workers, and had taken them to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to challenge the legality of the job action.

In a Monday press conference, Ontario's Premiere said the government would be willing to rescind the legislation as a gesture of "good faith".

"Our government is willing to rescind the legislation," Ford said.

"But only if CUPE agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike and letting our kids back into their classrooms."

Hugh Pouliot from CUPE confirmed that represented employees would be back to work as of Tuesday morning working under their previous contracts and that the union will be willing and ready to negotiate whenever the Ontario government is prepared to sit down.

The news will be warmly welcomed by parents of school aged children, who on the second day of school closures throughout the province have begun to be concerned about what would happen if the strike was prolonged.

Parents in Kingston and elsewhere have learned that their options for childcare are limited almost solely to taking time off work themselves to watch their kids, as daycare centres are not permitted to offer full day daycare during instructional days.

Barb Plazzotta, Head Teacher at Kingston's West End Daycare, said that staff at the location had hoped to help parents in this situation, but communication from the Ministry of Education made it clear that would not be an option.

She says while their frustration is not directed towards the daycare itself, it is clear parents are worried about the ramifications of a strike proceeding.

"Our hands are legally tied to not be able to provide that program," Plazzotta said.

"It's hard, we've had parents in tears on the phone - 'how am I going to pay my rent, how am I going to put food on the table if I have to stay home with my kids?'"

Plazzotta said while most daycares aren't setup to facilitate online learning, her understanding is that students engaged in asynchronous learning would have been able to make progress on that work within daycare facilities.

She says while there isn't a perfect solution, especially after the last two years of school and work disruptions more could have been done to plan to support families.

"All they have to do is make an amendment to the license," Plazzotta said.

"Let's work with these families, we've all been through enough, could we not have let kids come to daycare through the day and the parents pick up the slack at night?"

Plazzotta said prolonged school closures under the current licensing of daycare centres would not just financially hurt parents, but also the daycares themselves as families have been keeping their preschool aged children at home alongside their older kids while they take time off work.

On Sunday, Limestone District School Board Director of Education Krishna Burra sent out a release to families notifying them that schools would remain closed until further notice as protests were expected to continue throughout this week.

The release made note that equity of access to education was of chief concern to LDSB.

"Limestone CUPE employees provide critical services in schools across our district, and we cannot safely operate in-person learning for all students without these services. As a result, Limestone schools and buildings will remain closed to students and the public for Monday, November 7, until further notice," Burra wrote in the release.

"We will continue to action plans for distribution of resources, devices, and other supplies to further support student learning as the week proceeds. Please know that equity of access to education is a primary concern and was also highlighted in the Ministry communication from last week, as well as historical statements from the Ontario Human Rights Commission."

Suzanne Ruttan, Chair of the Board of Trustees at LDSB, added in her own statement that CUPE staff make up 30% of LDSB employees, and that they are valuable employees who are integral to the safe operation of schools.

Ruttan also referenced clear support of the right to collective bargaining.

"Limestone's CUPE employees are highly valued staff who provide a wide range of critical support functions in classrooms, schools, and across the systems," Ruttan wrote.

"We were hopeful for a fair and negotiated resolution to the current labour impasse, we remain committed to the principle of collective bargaining, and hope the current disruption is short-lived so we can return to in-person learning as soon as possible..."

It's unclear whether fears of a strike by a coalition of unions, as reported by Global News, factored into the Ford government's decision to back away from new legislation that effectively made striking by education workers illegal.

With the two sides expected to resume negotiating imminently, schools in Ontario are expected to reopen as of Tuesday fully staffed.

Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, YGK News