With contract talks at an impasse, and a mass walkout by thousands of Ontario education workers all but certain on Friday, London-area school boards are providing more information to local parents and students about what they should expect.
Roughly 55,000 education Ontario workers with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), including administrative staff, custodians and education assistants, are expected to strike on Friday after mediation between the province and union ended Thursday with no deal.
The government passed legislation late Thursday afternoon to impose a four-year contract on the workers and make it illegal for them to strike, with steep fines if they don’t comply. The union, however, has said previously that, even with the legislation, workers would still walk off the job “until further notice.”
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has said its 8,000 education workers will also walk off the job on Friday in solidarity with CUPE workers. The Labourers’ International Union of North America has also expressed solidarity.
School boards received a memo this week from the Ministry of Education saying they should “implement contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible,” according to The Canadian Press, which obtained the memo.
If boards determine they can’t safely open schools without the CUPE members, the ministry says “school boards must support students in a speedy transition to remote learning.”
Both the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) have said their schools will be closed on Friday if a walkout goes ahead, and that students will learn from home instead.
CUPE represents roughly 2,500 full-time and 1,000 casual staff within TVDSB, and approximately 1,300 staff within LDCSB, according to the school boards.
In a statement Thursday, TVDSB officials reiterated that students would be moved to independent/remote learning activities, and added that if there were any changes, updates would be issued by 6 a.m. Friday.
Board officials added that transportation would not be running, and that there would be no before or after school programs. Child care centres and EarlyON Family Centres would also be closed on Friday, they said.
“We will do our best to provide continuity of learning for all students. Access to virtual learning will be available to students through their Google Classroom or Brightspace platforms,” the statement reads.
“Your child(ren)’s teacher will communicate how students can access this information; if you need more details, please reach out directly to your child’s teacher.”
It’s unclear what this means for students who may not have the technology needed to access the online resources at home.
TVDSB loaned out more than 40,000 devices, including laptops, Chromebooks and iPads, to families during the COVID-19 pandemic, but asked for them back at the start of the current school year as most students returned to the classroom.
Without CUPE staff, the school board says devices can’t be deployed to students at this time.
For elementary and high school students in the local Catholic school board, Friday will also see independent, remote learning, LDCSB officials said in a statement Thursday.
The move for asynchronous learning is to give teachers time to prepare for a possible longer-term pivot to remote teaching, the board said, adding that resources are available to students through the Virtual Learning Environment, including TVO Learn.
“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,” LDCSB officials said.
“Schools will coordinate with families that may need to borrow a device for remote learning. We ask families to be patient, as many of our IT support staff are members of CUPE.”
Students unable to take part in remote learning will not be academically penalized, they said.
“We understand that this will have an enormous impact on families and all LDCSB staff, especially after the challenges faced during the pandemic,” the board said of the planned walkout.
Students in the French-language Conseil scolaire Viamonde will be in class Friday with schools open as usual, according to a board spokesperson.
“We will reassess the situation later on today as well as during the weekend to determine what actions, if any, are to be taken in regards to next week operations,” Steve Lapierre told Global News Friday morning.
Provincewide, the board has roughly 191 CUPE members, all of whom are caretakers and maintenance staff, Lapierre said, adding that the majority of its CUPE members across Ontario came to work as scheduled.
For those in the province’s French-language Catholic school board, Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, all elementary and secondary students were offered asynchronous remote learning, according to a letter sent home to parents earlier this week.
“School-based child care services remain open during the day only, but before and after school programs are cancelled,” a machine-translated version of the letter read.
“As mentioned in the letter of October 31, parents of school-age children were asked to make other arrangements for the supervision of their child during the day of November 4.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said he wouldn’t negotiate further unless the union cancelled its strike, and that the province had no choice but to proceed with its legislation.
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 that framing is not accurate because the raises actually depend on hourly wages and pay scales, so the majority of workers who earn less than $43,000 in a year wouldn’t get 2.5 per cent.
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.
— with files from The Canadian Press