Parents scramble for child care as education workers, province resume talks


TORONTO – Parents in Ontario scrambled Friday morning to figure out what to do with their kids should the province’s education workers strike on Monday – a looming question that wouldn’t be answered until the afternoon at the earliest.

Talks between the province and the union that represents custodians, clerical workers and early childhood educators were set to resume towards the end of the day, with the workers planning to walk off the job Monday if no deal is reached – potentially leaving thousands of parents in the lurch.

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“I will have to have to skip my school to stay with my daughter,” said Roxana Ichim of Mississauga, Ont., a mother of two who is studying marketing at Sheridan College.

“I see a lot of activity centres around us saying they are organizing stuff for kids like camps, but I cannot afford to go to that,” said Ichim, who typically relies on full-day daycare for her 22-month-old as well as before- and after-school care for her kindergarten-aged daughter.

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Ichim added she was sympathetic to the education workers’ plight, noting she and her daughter rely on the work they do, such as keeping schools clean.

Her daughter’s school board is one of at least two dozen that have said they will have to close if the labour disruption goes ahead, citing concerns for student safety without CUPE workers on site.

What happens if Ontario’s education workers hit the picket lines?

What happens if Ontario’s education workers hit the picket lines?

Some school-based daycares have said they’ll operate as if it’s a professional activity (PA) day, charging parents extra for the additional hours of care.

Meanwhile, the City of Toronto said city-run programs in schools – such as recreation programs, pool activities and after-school recreation care – would be cancelled should a strike go ahead.

Such measures have posed problems for privately operated child-care providers.

“Parents have asked me if I know any babysitters or if I have any extra staff who would be willing to help out,” said Ellana Katzberg, who owns Playcare Early Learning Centre in Vaughan, Ont. “It’s been quite a stressful situation for everybody.”

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She said she’ll be working through the weekend to help figure out solutions for her clients’ older kids, including by using online job boards to recruit more help.

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“I’ve also reached out to a couple of home daycare providers in the area to see if they have any spots to help some of our families,” Katzberg said.

“We put a post out asking if there was a need for Monday and within, I’d say 10 minutes, I had 30 people that emailed to say they were in a bind.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Friday the government remains committed to reaching a deal with the union.

“Our government has negotiated in good faith and will continue to do so,” he said in a statement ahead of the resumption of bargaining. “We remain fully committed to resuming discussions with CUPE to reach an agreement quickly to provide predictability to parents and students.”

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CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents the 55,000 workers, reiterated that if no deal can be reached over the weekend, the current work-to-rule campaign will “escalate to full strike on Monday.”

The government, union and school boards have agreed to a communications blackout during the talks, which start at 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Contracts for Ontario’s public school teachers and education workers expired Aug. 31, and the major unions are in various stages of bargaining. The negotiations are happening as the government has ordered school boards to start increasing class sizes, moving to an average for high school from 22 to 28 over four years. Class sizes for Grades 4 to 8 will increase by one student per classroom, from 23 to 24.

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List of school closures across Ontario if CUPE education workers strike Monday

The government has said that will mean 3,475 fewer teachers in the system over four years, which will be accomplished by not filling vacancies when teachers quit or retire. The union has said those cuts will trickle down and affect educational assistant supports and custodial services as well.

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

Last week, after talks broke down, Ontario’s school boards said they have asked the union for a “modest alteration” to the wages paid to workers on short term disability, but CUPE has not agreed to any changes.

© 2019 The Canadian Press