Families in London, Ont., are dealing with a last-minute change of plans ahead of school closures tied to an ongoing labour dispute between the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Ontario government.
CUPE, which represents about 55,000 Ontario education workers including librarians, custodians and early childhood educators, has threatened to launch a strike on Friday following repeated failed attempts to agree on new contracts with the province.
On Thursday, the union said mediation with the province had “concluded” without a deal, meaning the union’s planned strike is set to go ahead on Friday.
In a press conference just minutes after the statement was issued, minister of education Stephen Lecce said he had “no choice” but to pass legislation that will impose a contract on CUPE workers and make their planned strike illegal.
In an email sent to families afterward, the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) said its schools would be closed as a result, with students taking up either virtual learning or independent learning activities based on their arrangements at home.
“If anything changes between today and tomorrow, updates will be provided by 6 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4,” the email added.
The London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) is taking a similar approach and will have students switch to online asynchronous learning on Friday, however that plan was shared before news broke of talks breaking down between CUPE and the province.
“Next week, if schools need to remain closed, online learning for students will be scheduled based on the daily Ministry of Education requirements using both synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning,” the LDCSB added in an update to families.
On Thursday morning, when a CUPE-led strike was not yet guaranteed, Global News spoke with local parents and guardians to hear how they were coping.
It’s been a stressful week to say the least for Sarah Magowan, a mother with children at St. George’s Public School.
“We’re trying to last-minute find child care, make sure our little people are taken care of, so it’s been a bit of struggle obviously because we didn’t know how long the strike is going to be or if it’s going to happen,” Magowan said.
“I was able to get some grandparents involved and help me out and support me, but I know that’s not an option for everyone, so certainly my heart goes out to everyone who’s in the struggle right now.”
Jennifer Navackas is another St. George’s parent and says she’s lucky to have the day off tomorrow, but only because she’s limited the amount of days she works due to back and forth school closures since the pandemic.
“My daughter is in Grade 2 now. Even when she was in kindergarten, there were strikes, so we have not had a good experience,” Navackas said.
“It’s stressful to think that the schools can be closed again when they’ve already been closed for so long. I think a lot of children are behind; we don’t know if they will ever catch up. They always say, ‘put the children first,’ but it doesn’t feel that way.”
A mother of two at Lord Roberts Public School, Emma Tamblyn is counting her blessings as a stay-at-home parent who won’t have to make alternative arrangements for a potential strike, but says taking care of her children will still prevent her from “doing any of the other things on my never-ending to-do list.”
“I’ve got one in JK and one in Grade 1 so this isn’t going to be detrimental to their mental health or their academic future, but I feel bad for all the older kids who have already had so many disruptions throughout COVID,” Tamblyn said.
“I fully intended to go back to work years ago and I haven’t because of the uncertainty of life… eventually I will go back to work and eventually I hope everything will be normal.”
Ryan Van Horne, a father whose child also attends Lord Roberts, says his family’s plans involve showing solidarity with CUPE members.
“My wife is an educator, she’s a teacher as well… you will see the three of us at the picket line for sure,” Van Horne said.
“All of us as parents, we want our kids in for the school year, but we want to make sure that their educators are paid appropriately for what they do and all the great things that they do for our kids.”
As for what’s being negotiatied, the government originally offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, but says the new, imposed four-year deal would give 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.
CUPE has said its workers, which make on average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and have been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent, among other changes in the new contracts.
A report from the Toronto Star published on Wednesday said CUPE had brought that salary increase demand down to roughly six per cent annually, however that number has not yet been confirmed by the union.
— with files from Global News’ Colin D’Mello and Isaac Callan