Schools closed for 116000 Ottawa students as teachers, educators stage one-day strike

High school teachers and education workers were on the picket line Wednesday in a one-day strike that canceled classes for 116,000 Ottawa students.

Parents scrambled to find care for the kids while members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) said the one-day pain that closed some schools across the province was necessary to fight cuts being made by the Conservative government.

Talk is heated on both sides of the increasingly fractious contract negotiations. Education Minister Stephen Lecce called the union irresponsible, unreasonable and only interested in a pay raise the government can’t afford.

OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said the government will destroy a world-class education system with larger classes, program cuts and mandatory online learning for high school students.

Now the big question is what happens after students are back in school on Thursday.

No bargaining is scheduled. Both sides say they are open to negotiating while continuing to advance their arguments in bids for public support.

OSSTF has already withdrawn some administrative services, such as adding comments to report cards. That job action will continue.

Lecce has called for a “private mediator” to help reach a deal, an idea Bischof dismissed as a “distraction” since there is already a mediator in place. “A new mediator is not going to make us agree to an erosion in the quality of education,” Bischof said in an interview.

Three other major education unions are also intense negotiations. Public elementary teachers have also withdrawn some administrative services in Stage One of job action. English Catholic teachers are on a countdown toward being in an official strike position. The union representing French school board teachers is taking a strike vote this month.

In Ottawa, the strike on Wednesday closed elementary and secondary schools at three boards: the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario (CEPEO) and the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est. The Ottawa Catholic School Board was not affected.

On a dozen picket lines set up at secondary schools and offices of local Conservative MPPs, educators held signs and waved at passing cars. The OSSTF includes both English public high school teachers and support staff in elementary and secondary schools at all three boards.

At Ridgemont High School, several support staff said class sizes and help for high-needs students are key issues for them.

“A one-day strike is not hurting the kids,” said Kim Thompson, an early childhood educator at Steve MacLean Public School. “Taking away critical support from classrooms is hurting the kids.”

The educational assistants help students with special education needs, behavior and mental health problems.

People can be less than supportive when educators stage job actions, said EA Marsha Adema, who works at Sawmill Creek Elementary School. “This time, from what I’ve seen, people have more of a big-picture outlook. Some of the things on the table are obviously going to affect student learning. I think the public gets that. Larger class sizes and e-learning? Those are huge issues.”

The government has ordered school boards to increase average high school classes from 22 to 28 students over the next four years. Classes in Grades 4 to 8 have increased by just under one student. The larger classes would eliminate about 10,000 teachers by attrition.

Lecce says he has listened to parents and shown flexibility by proposing during bargaining that the average high-school class increase to 25 students instead of 28. He stresses that the government has maintained low-class sizes in early elementary grades.

The government has also shown it’s willing to compromise by reducing the number of online courses it will require high school students to take from four to two, says Lecce.

OSSTF opposes any increase in class sizes and says online learning should continue to be optional, not mandatory.

Ridgemont High School teacher Laura Wheeler said she’s deeply concerned about mandatory e-learning, saying some students at her school don’t have internet or computers at home.

“Many of our kids don’t have anything more than a cellphone at home if they have that,” she said on the picket line.

She rejected Lecce’s assertion that the dispute is primarily about pay raises.

“It’s a really easy line to get people riled up against us. At most, we are looking for pay that goes up with inflation, not a raise. And that’s not even the main issue.”

The government has passed legislation limiting salary increases for all public servants to one percent annually for three years. OSSTF is asking for a raise equivalent to the cost of living, currently around two percent.

In public comments about the OSSTF dispute, Lecce has criticized the union for asking for a “$1.5 billion raise.”

Bischof says the minister’s number is inaccurate.

The cost of a two-per-cent annual raise for OSSTF members is about $200 million over the course of a three-year contract, said Bischof.

The figure of $1.5 billion represents the cost of a two-per-cent raise for education workers in all unions over a four-year period.

One major education union, representing some support staff, reached a deal in October a few hours before they were set to strike. Members of CUPE agreed to one-per-cent wage increases while the government added funding to restore jobs that had been cut.

CUPE’s deal includes a “me too” clause that stipulates if other education unions negotiate a higher salary increase, they will also receive it.