Ontario parents worried about another disruption to learning as possible strike looms

MISSISSAUGA — Some parents in Ontario voiced concerns Friday about further learning disruptions for students as a possible strike by education workers loomed.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees has said 55,000 of its workers — including education assistants, early childhood educators and custodians — will walk off en masse on Monday if a deal with the province isn't reached by 5 p.m. on Sunday.

It would be the second time that CUPE's education workers go on strike this month. Hundreds of schools were closed to in-person learning for two days when workers walked off the job in response to the government enacting a law that imposed contracts on them, banned them from striking, and used the notwithstanding clause to allow the override of certain Charter rights.

Several school boards — including Canada's largest, the Toronto District School Board, as well as the Peel District School Board — have said learning will move online next week in the event of another walkout by CUPE, which filed a strike notice earlier this week after talks with the province broke down again.

Mississauga, Ont., parent Shabnam Shafi, whose two children attend Westacres Public School in the Peel board, said she was concerned about more learning disruptions if another strike goes ahead next week.

“It’s really not nice for the kids, them going on strike again,” said Shafi, whose children are in senior kindergarten and Grade 2, outside the school Friday.

“But (the union) should get what they’re asking, I think they have to negotiate and they have to reach a deal that’s good for everybody. The kids need to be in school.”

CUPE has said the two sides recently agreed on a $1-per-hour raise each year, or about 3.59 per cent annually, but the union is still fighting for higher staffing levels for educational assistants, librarians, custodians, secretaries and early childhood educators.

Marianne Ivanov, a Milton, Ont., parent in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, said she would not support another CUPE strike next week for that reason.

But she said her daughter's education is so far behind because of the pandemic that another strike wouldn't make a difference in the short term.

"It has disrupted her learning a lot these past two years," said Ivanov, whose daughter is in Grade 5, in a phone interview. "Especially last year, she was extremely behind with her math."

As a long-term solution to educational disruptions, Ivanov said she has begun considering alternatives to public school.

"Right now I'm looking into homeschooling because I'm just so frustrated," Ivanov said, adding: "The problem is my daughter likes being in class and with her friends."

After two years of classroom disruptions because of the pandemic, and then the recent CUPE walkout, Charles Chung said he was worried about getting children back into a routine.

“Bottom line to me is we’re trying to get back to some sort of normalcy and it seems like the government won’t even talk,” said Chung while dropping off his child, who is in Grade 2, at Westacres.

The union and the government are set to negotiate through the weekend. Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said the government has put forward multiple improved offers and has not asked for any concessions.

Despite his concerns over learning, Chung said he supports CUPE “100 per cent” in its demands for higher staffing levels, especially for an early childhood educator in every kindergarten classroom.

In an email to parents on Friday, Laura Walton, the president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said the union would be at the bargaining table all weekend.

"We are not willing to be bought off by a loonie," she said. "We are not going to turn our backs on the needs of parents when you have been so supportive this entire fight," she said.

The Ontario Federation of Labour said it planned to hold solidarity rallies across the province on Saturday.

A spokeswoman for Lecce said in a statement Friday that the government is "disappointed" students may be out of school again next week.

"Following two years of pandemic disruptions, students need to be in class learning. That’s where they deserve to be. We will remain at the table and ready to land a fair deal that invests more in lower-income workers and most importantly, keeps kids in class," Caitlin Clark said.

Clark said the government will provide eligible health-care workers -- including doctors, nurses, personal support workers and long-term care staff -- access to free care for elementary school children starting Monday "and for the duration of CUPE’s labour disruption in the 2022-23 school year."

The government tabled the legislation at the end of October after the union issued a five-day strike notice. Unions criticized the use of the notwithstanding clause in the bill as an attack on Charter rights, while Lecce said the government had no choice in order to keep students in classrooms.

Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford offered to withdraw the legislation if CUPE members returned to work, which they did, and bargaining resumed.

In 2019, CUPE and the government reached a last-minute deal the day before workers had been set to go on a full strike.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press