HALIFAX—Nova Scotia is closing all its public schools Monday as teachers prepare to take job action over failed contract negotiations.
The provincial education minister told reporters Saturday that it cannot ensure student safety under the Nova Scotia Teacher Union’s planned work-to-rule job action.
“The safety of our students is paramount in all of this,” Karen Casey said. “What we’re saying to parents is that we recognize that this will be an inconvenience in the short-term, but we believe that the responsibility to ensure that their students are safe is a priority and we will err on the side of that.”
The union representing 9,300 public school educators has directed staff to go to school 20 minutes before classes begin and leave 20 minutes after they end.
Casey said after consultations with school board officials, the provincial government determined that the job actions proposed by the NSTU could “put our students in an unsafe environment.” She cited concerns about students being stranded in schoolyards, unsupervised in classrooms and children with special needs arriving on buses and getting to class without teacher assistance.
Casey said the Liberal government plans to bring forward legislation that will return students to school “as quickly as possible.” The legislation will impose the tentative agreement reached by the province and the teachers union in September as an NSTU contract through July 2019. If passed, the legislation would make strike action illegal.
Under the new contract for teachers included in the upcoming legislation, Casey assured that there will be “no interruption” in the examination periods or other programs overseen by teachers.
The president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union said in a statement Saturday that the province’s announcement has left parents “scrambling to find care.” Liette Doucet said if the provincial government were concerned about students’ safety, it would have let students go to school where teachers would have been ready to teach.
“With this step, our government is showing that it will do anything except negotiate with teachers,” said Doucet. “Instead of negotiating with teachers in good faith, this government has decided to take away their collective rights and impose a contract … one that doesn’t address the core problems with our education system.”
With less than 48 hours notice of the upcoming school closures, parents are scrambling to find childcare solutions. Community centres like the Canada Games Centre and the Boys and Girls Club of Truro have offered programs for students next week, and other self-proclaimed childcare providers have turned to websites like Kijiji advertising makeshift solutions for parents.
Hannah Munday, who runs a daycare out of her home in the Halifax area, said she and other providers have had to turn away parents as the union-government standoff has escalated in recent weeks. A mother of three young children, Munday said she is concerned by social media posts of people offering informal, low-cost childcare services without proper insurance, first-aid accreditation or criminal background checks.
“I don’t think it’s nefarious, they’re trying to help,” said Munday. “It’s just worrying to me. If this drags on for any length of time, I don’t think it’s a safe option at all.”
The Nova Scotia House of Assembly has been called to resume Monday, according to a statement from the speaker’s office, by reason of “the public interest.”
Opposition leader Jamie Baillie said in a tweet Saturday that the Conservative party would “soundly reject” the proposed legislation and fight for meaningful classroom reform.
NDP leader Gary Burrill said in a statement following the province’s announcement that the Liberals’ approach “undermines” democracy and public education.
The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union said in a statement Saturday that Premier Stephen McNeil has “single-handedly destroyed” the province’s ability to fairly negotiate with its public servants.
“We will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union to oppose Stephen McNeil’s ongoing assault against public sector workers’ rights,” president Jason MacLean said. “He’s moved on to meddle with our public education system and is locking kids out of their own schools.”
The NSGEU urged its more than 31,000 members to prepared for “unprecedented action” against the McNeil government. The province’s largest public sector union issued a statement Friday instructing members who work for certain school boards to refuse any work “above and beyond” their normal hours and responsibilities.
Casey assured the province “is not locking the union out.” The schools are closed to students, she said, but teachers and staff are expected to show up at work Monday. She said teachers are presented with a “conflicting decision” between the directives of their union and their responsibilities under Nova Scotia’s education act.
“It think it’s become obvious that the work-to-rule has gone beyond the definition of a work-to-rule, and has infringed on what teachers are expected to do under the act,” she said. “The obligations and the responsibilities that teachers have under the act, which is for supervision of students.”
The NSTU job action was announced after contract talks between the union and the provincial government fell apart last week.