Ontario’s public secondary teachers hit the picket lines Wednesday, closing hundreds of schools across the province

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Ontario’s public secondary teachers will hit the picket lines on Wednesday — shuttering hundreds of schools across the province — after last-ditch talks with the government over the last four days failed to reach a deal.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said before the union’s midnight deadline that no progress had been made at the table — the fourth straight day of bargaining and he held out little hope for a settlement.

He later said the province has offered “nothing” since Saturday to “ensure the quality of education” and while he sympathizes with parents and students facing the disruption of a strike, he said a one-day job action is “nothing like the disruption” the Ford government’s changes would bring.

A government source said its negotiators had waited till Tuesday night for a revised offer from the OSSTF in response to the “many different offers and moves we have made.”

The OSSTF also represents education workers and professional staff in a number of public, French and Catholic boards across the province — in elementary schools as well — which would shut down some boards entirely for the day in the event of a strike.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said late Tuesday that his “message to parents, on the eve of potential job action, is that our government has remained reasonable at the negotiating table, with the objective of keeping students in class.”

He had urged OSSTF to “cancel this needless escalation that is hurting children, parents and families.”

The province is looking to boost class sizes in secondary schools from last year’s average of 22 to 25, down from its original plan of jumping to 28 over four years — a move that would phase out thousands of teaching jobs and tens of thousands of course options for teens.

Lecce also recently said the government would mandate two online courses for teens, instead of four. Currently, such classes are optional, and there is no jurisdiction in North America that has such a requirement.

(A handful of U.S. states require one e-learning credit in order to earn a high school diploma, including Florida and Alabama.)

There is little public support for either move, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, blaming the government for the impasse with teacher unions.

Although talks continue, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario is currently on a work-to-rule — as are the secondary teachers — and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association has applied for a no-board report, putting it in a strike position in about three weeks. Neither is taking part in OSSTF’s daylong strike.

“The minister shamefully disrespects what parents are feeling at this juncture in negotiations — and on the eve of a work stoppage,” Horwath said.

NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles said the government is “supposed to go to the bargaining table to improve education, not make cuts that hurt kids. If this government cared about our students …they wouldn’t be jeopardizing graduation rates by cutting courses and pushing kids into online learning. And they wouldn’t be targeting the very people who deliver our education.”

Leslie Wolfe, who is head of the 7,000-member OSSTF local in Toronto, said striking teachers will picket the Toronto District School Board headquarters and Premier Doug Ford’s constituency office in Etobicoke, among other locations.

“Teachers would much rather be in the classroom with their students,” she said of the potential strike. “And the fact that we have been driven by the government to be off the job should tell people just how dire what the government is proposing will be for our students in our schools.”

Lecce said earlier Tuesday that the unions “must be reasonable in order to ensure we keep kids in class both Wednesday and every day thereafter.”

He has said the key issue is salary increases, with the government offering one per cent in each year of a deal, in keeping with recent wage-cap legislation it passed.

The OSSTF is seeking a cost-of-living increase, or about two per cent.

Lecce says each one per cent increase across the entire education sector costs the government $750 million, over four years.

Liberal MPP Kathleen Wynne, former premier and education minister, said “what I have heard the unions and the federations say is that the quality of education is their focus — that’s their primary focus” and not salaries.

Bischof accused Lecce of “trying to inflame the situation” by focusing on compensation.

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Teachers have been without a contract since the end of August.

The government has so far negotiated one deal, with support staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees — a three-year contract reached in early October, on the eve of a threatened full-out strike.

Meanwhile, the labour board ruled Tuesday that CUPE members must report to work in the event of a strike on Wednesday, “in the usual manner regardless of any picket lines. If you don’t report to work, you may be participating in an illegal strike contrary to the Labor Relations Act and may be subject to discipline, fines, penalties and prosecution.”

Kristin Rushowy