Some parents are worried about cancelled pre-primary classes in the Halifax area as the education worker strike enters its third week.
Nicole Gillis’ family was among those left scrambling to find care for their kids who are not able to attend school due to the job action. They say the workers should be paid their worth, so they can return to the classroom.
Gillis’ four-year-old son, William, is a pre-primary student. His older sibling is still able to attend school.
“Every single morning he asks why his brother gets to go to school and not him,” Gillis told Global News.
Gillis has been sharing her office with her young son since the support worker strike within the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) began on May 10 after negotiations broke down between the province and CUPE Local 5047, which represents the workers.
The major sticking point remains wages. There are 1,800 workers off the job including educational program assistants (EPAs), early childhood educators, and other support workers.
Gillis said it’s next to impossible to find child care in Nova Scotia, especially given the short notice and the uncertainty around how long the job action will last.
“My family is in New Brunswick,” Gillis explained. “They’ll take him (William) in a heartbeat, but it’s not ideal to continue to ship your child between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia week after week.”
Gillis said she’s lucky she can work from home while the pre-primary program is paused. She adds her husband works in a hospital and is unable to do the same — like many other parents.
“With having a four-year-old in the background who is always asking questions, who always needs snacks, who needs a parent — he is only four — it’s impacting both of us but we’re trying to make due the best that we can,” said Gillis.
“I wanna be back to school,” William added.
Gillis has also been scheduling playdates with other working moms to help cover childcare.
‘Pushed to almost my breaking point’
Meantime, Ian Leger is another parent caring for his four-year-old son Beau from his home office. His wife has also adjusted her work schedule and family and friends are stepping in to help them.
“My father owns his own business and is able to tweak his hours a little bit to help us out,” Leger explained. “My wife has a friend who owns her own business and was able to help us out on some other days.”
But, he noted, “that is three, four different businesses all working together to try to figure out one child.” He wonders how the families of the other 30 children in Beau’s pre-primary class are faring.
While he said he’s fortunate to have help, it’s still a source of stress for his family.
“I’m a fairly easygoing person, and I’ve been really stressed, pushed to almost my breaking point a few times and just trying to get this solved,” he said.
Leger said he supports the striking workers and wants to see them paid what they’re worth.
“I want to see them be able to live and make it, and have the money that they need to pay their bills, and pay their rent, and pay their taxes, and also to be able to do their own fun things,” he said.
“We shouldn’t have to spend all of our money on just making it. We should be able to enjoy our lives as well, and so I want to see that for them.”
Fellow parent Samantha Darcy worries about the impact on her five-year-old son and others after the pandemic. She and her family have also been juggling child care while working from home.
She said aside from learning, pre-primary offers opportunities for socialization for an age group who experienced lockdowns from a young age.
“To see him open up again at school with these teachers and the support and all of his friends, it has been amazing,” said Darcy. “But you see him retreat back into his shell pretty quickly the longer he’s home.”
Darcy said it’s “seemingly impossible” to be productive and do well at her job, while trying to keep her son engaged and learning.
This is causing “extreme burnout” for her and her husband, as well as emotionally impacting her son.
“He’s sad. He’s lonely. He sits upstairs and he talks to his toys,” she said. “He’s clinging to that idea of having his friends, and having his classroom around.”
The Halifax Regional Centre for Education says more than 3,000 pre-primary children are impacted by the strike. Resources are also being posted online to help families learn from home.
“HRCE’s Pre-Primary team continues to update a website of resources daily to help families provide age-appropriate learning opportunities for their children until they are able to return to school,” said communications officer Lindsey Bunin.
In a statement to Global News last week, the province said the last time the HRCE and CUPE bargained was May 9 with a conciliator’s assistance. The job action began the next day.
“The union asked for three things — common table bargaining, alignment of agreement dates, and wage parity across the province — and the employers, with the support of the Province, delivered on each one,” said Labour Relations spokesperson Andrew Preeper.
Preeper said the seven other regions in the province, as well as the French school board, accepted the deal.
“The Halifax Local rejected the agreement and is asking for wage and other increases beyond what the tentative agreement contained,” said the statement.
“CUPE Halifax Local’s asks would undo the wage parity, giving a significant advantage over their own membership across the province.”
‘They love these kids’
The parents say they support the job action despite its impact, as they want to see the workers paid they’re worth.
“I see the way they take care of my kids, and I see the way they take care of kids who need the support,” said Darcy.
“These are not people who come into this career hoping to make a ton of money … they are there because it’s what they love to do. They love these kids, they love supporting them, they love to see them grow.
“We need to give them what they need. They are not making a livable wage.”
Added Leger: “We just want to see people survive and thrive.”
Meanwhile, the parents are trying their best as the strike drags on.
“I’m really trying to do it day-by-day, otherwise I get a little too overwhelmed,” said Gillis.
— with files from Alex Cooke