Parents could be in limbo until Sunday as possible education workers' strike looms

TORONTO — Parents in Ontario face the possibility of not learning until Sunday evening whether schools will be closed next week, as a potential strike by education workers inches closer.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees said Thursday that it and the government had agreed to a bargaining deadline of 5 p.m. on Sunday, after which workers would walk off en masse Monday if a deal isn't reached. The union filed a strike notice this week after talks broke down.

It would be the second time the 55,000 workers go off the job this month, and the Ministry of Education has instructed school boards to enable a "speedy transition to remote learning" if they determine they can't safely keep schools open.

Several school boards have already said learning will move online in the event of a strike.

Khalel Shah, a Toronto father of four, said a possible strike will be challenging. While his wife isn't working at the moment, taking care of a toddler and supervising online learning for three elementary school kids will be hard, he said.

"Definitely it is going to be difficult for parents. This looks like it is a looming crisis," he said outside Thorncliffe Park Public School after dropping off his children on Thursday morning.

Online learning has its own set of challenges, he added.

"I got three kids in school and I got one laptop at home," he said, noting his children are in kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 3.

The Toronto District School Board has said schools will start distributing devices to students who need them as soon as possible but noted that the process could take several days to complete.

Shah called on the government and CUPE to come to an agreement that would see kids able to stay in school.

"If CUPE actually cares about the kids that they are working with, and they care about the teachers that they are helping and assisting, they would have been thinking way ahead and had resolved this," he said.

CUPE's education workers, including education assistants, early childhood educators and custodians, walked off the job for two days earlier this month after the province enacted legislation that imposed a contract on them and took away their right to strike.

The government then promised to repeal the legislation and the workers returned to their jobs as bargaining resumed.

Belona Stublla, a Toronto mother of a preschooler and a kindergartner, said the previous school closure over the CUPE walkout this month made it nearly impossible to get any work done, even though she can work remotely.

"I probably managed to work for an hour the entire day," she said, adding that she'd have to work at night after her kids are asleep in the event of a strike.

The prospect of having her kindergartner sit through online learning was also a daunting one, Stublla said.

"She loses interest very fast,” Stublla said. "I have to be very involved so (I am) pretty much losing the entire day."

Toronto parent Tanvir Chowdhury, who has a child in school, said kids and their families will be hit the hardest if CUPE and the province don't avert a strike.

"It is the children who are going to suffer," he said.

The Ministry of Education said in a memo to school boards that they should move learning online if they can't stay open to in-person learning during a strike.

"It is important that students are benefiting from live, teacher-led learning during this period," the ministry said in the memo, obtained by The Canadian Press.

CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions said Thursday it was urging the government to reach a fair deal.

"Both parties have agreed to set a deadline of 5:00 pm on Sunday evening so we can provide parents and caregivers as much notice as possible," it said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government has put forward multiple improved offers and has not asked for any concessions.

CUPE said the two sides recently agreed on a 3.59 per cent wage increase, but the union is still fighting for higher staffing levels for educational assistants, librarians, custodians, secretaries and early childhood educators.

The possibility of a strike on Monday saw the operators of some children's programs offer daycamps for parents looking for child-care options.

Cameron Ribble, owner of nature program Red Fox Forest Adventures in Elmira, Ont., had offered a daycamp during the CUPE walkout earlier this month. He said he spent Thursday afternoon organizing a daycamp for next week after receiving emails from parents asking if a similar program would run again.

"It's hectic to find staff last minute to run this on days when we don't typically have programs," said Ribble. "But we're willing to do it because we support all of our teachers and education workers and want everyone to get the best result possible."

Ribble said the camp will be offered to parents for $50 per day, a discount from the typical rate of $70 a day.

Michael Deh, owner of Etobicoke Takewondo & Deh Camp in Toronto, said he had also heard from parents looking for a daycamp for next week.

"Obviously parents need help and so whenever the kids are out of school, we take them for the whole day ... doing all kinds of activities," said Deh.

His studio ran a camp during the CUPE walkout earlier this month and Deh said he's cut daily fees in half for the duration of the upcoming daycamp.

"Parents are very happy, very thankful that we have something like this for them," he said. "It's a bad situation for all of us but we're making the best out of it."

- with files from Jessica Smith.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2022.

Sharif Hassan, The Canadian Press