Many Ontario boards will close schools Monday if education workers strike

Canada's largest school board is considering a drastic change to its practice of steering high schoolers toward either "academic" or "applied" courses, with a proposal to have nearly all students in Grades 9 and 10 learn at the same level. A Toronto District School Board sign is shown in front of a high school in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO:  Hundreds of schools across Ontario are set to close their doors on Monday if the province’s education workers go through with a threatened strike, potentially shutting more than half a million students out of the classroom.

The Toronto District School Board was among those to issue a notice to parents Thursday informing them that if a labour disruption occurs, schools will not open to start the week.

The Toronto board is Canada’s largest, with 250,000 students.

Earlier Thursday, the Peel District School Board and York Region District School Board, the province’s second and third largest boards with a combined total of more than 282,000 students, said they too would close in the event of a strike.

They joined a growing list of school districts that say they will close schools if workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees strike on Monday.

CUPE, which represents 55,000 custodians, clerical workers and early childhood educators, gave notice Wednesday of the potential for job action.

The Toronto board, which alone employs 18,000 workers who could be on the picket line, said it would make the move out of concern for student safety.

“Student supervision and safety are our top priorities and without the important services of these school-based employees, we cannot guarantee that our learning environments will remain safe and clean for all students,” the TDSB statement said.

The Peel board said CUPE workers “are responsible for daily health and safety checks, help when busing issues arise, and provide support that helps keep students and staff safe, and schools running smoothly.

“After thoughtful consideration, we have determined that student safety cannot be ensured during a CUPE strike,” the board, which includes 253 schools in the region west of Toronto, said in a statement.

The York Region board, which includes 211 schools, said in a statement that it’s very rare for it to close schools to students.

“This was not a decision made lightly,” the statement said. “In examining all possible avenues for contingency planning, there is no capacity to cover the skilled work of these 5,500 staff members.”

At least a half dozen other school boards across the province have also indicated they will close schools Monday if workers strike.

The union _ which began a work-to-rule campaign on Monday _ will return to the bargaining table with the province and school boards Friday afternoon for a round of talks over the weekend.

The government and school boards have said high rates of worker absenteeism remain unresolved, while the union has said the impact of government cuts on workers must be addressed.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government is ready to continue the contract talks.

“We will be at the bargaining table all weekend to endeavour to get a deal that keeps students in the classroom,” Alexandra Adamo said in a statement.