One-day strike by teachers and education workers could cancel classes for 116000 Ottawa students

Most elementary and secondary schools in Ottawa may be closed Wednesday if teachers and support staff go ahead with a one-day strike.

Ottawa’s English public school board says parents should be prepared for classes to be canceled if there is a strike. The two French-language boards have announced that all schools would have to close to ensure that students remained safe.

Between the three boards, about 116,000 students could be out of class. The strike would not affect the Ottawa Catholic School Board, whose support staff have already reached a new agreement.

Four of Ontario’s five major education unions remain engaged in intense negotiations with the provincial government. The unions are fighting larger classes, mandatory online courses for high school students cuts to some education funding and a law limiting wage increases for public servants to one percent a year.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has criticized the unions for escalating the conflict, saying that he’s being reasonable and that strikes hurt kids.

The one-day walkout planned for Dec. 4 by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) would be the first general strike in Ontario schools since 1997 when teachers walked out to protest cuts by the Conservative government of Mike Harris.

OSSTF President Harvey Bischof says there’s still time to reach a deal before Dec. 4. Negotiations were scheduled to continue all weekend.

Teachers and support staff were set up outside Billings Bridge shopping center on Saturday for an information packet. ASHLEY FRASER / POSTMEDIA

OSSTF represents public high school teachers and a wide variety of support staff at various boards, including the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and Ottawa’s two French-language boards.

At the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, OSSTF represents custodians, office staff, early childhood educators, professional staff and educational assistants in both elementary and secondary schools.

Board chair Lynn Scott said that, in the event of a strike, it would be difficult for schools to provide adequate supervision and support for the board’s 75,000 students. Parents should start planning child-care just in case, said Scott, who emphasized it was still possible a deal would be reached before then.

The board’s statement to parents is that all schools “may” have to close in the event of a strike, but trustees are to discuss the issue Monday night and parents should check the board website for updates, Scott said.

The Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est and the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario have both announced they will cancel classes and before- and after-school childcare if there is a strike.

Public elementary and secondary teachers withdrew some administrative services this past week. Bischof said that had little effect on the “tone or substance of negotiations,” so the union had no choice but to intensify job action to “defend our education system against a government that has already begun to sabotage it.”

OSSTF members from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board staged information pickets at several locations around the city on Saturday, including the Billings Bridge shopping center.

Several educational assistants at the protest there said they were struggling with an increasing number of high-needs and aggressive children. “Increasing class sizes, that’s a really big issue for me,” Liz Button said, adding that resources should be increased, not cut. “Teachers can’t teach when there is so much going on in the classroom. There is aggression every day.” The assistants help students with behavior problems and mental health issues.

Ahmed Said has been a custodian at Clifford Bowery school for 20 years. JACQUIE MILLER / POSTMEDIA

Renna Prest said some children unable to control their emotions were disruptive and run out of classes. “We need more support to keep everyone safe.”

Ahmed Said, who has worked for 20 years as a custodian, says any cuts to education will hurt the vulnerable children at the school for developmentally delayed children where he works. “I’m here to defend education.”