Ontario could be in an open confrontation with teachers as early as Monday following the breakdown of weekend talks between the government and the secondary school teachers’ union.

On Sunday, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals reiterated that the province is not afraid to force striking high-school teachers in three school boards into classrooms by passing back-to-work legislation.

“Should the Education Relations Commission make a determination that the school year is in jeopardy, our government will take the appropriate action as quickly as possible,” Ms. Sandals said in a statement.

The government turned to the rarely used commission in mid-May, asking it to decide whether the strikes at Durham, Peel and Sudbury-area boards threaten the completion of the school year. Last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne said she would not rule out back-to-work legislation to end the dispute, which has seen more than 70,000 students lose several weeks of classroom time.

There is no new money for any contract settlement with teachers, the government has said, and any gains in wages or benefits must be made up through savings in other areas. One of the issues in the talks has been the removal of caps on class sizes in high school.

That would affect the educational environment of teachers and students and could eventually lead to job cuts, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) has said.

Two days of talks with a mediator had not led to an agreement, the union said Saturday, announcing that negotiations were at an “impasse.”

“We want nothing more than to reach a negotiated settlement, but we simply can’t agree to terms that undermine our members’ working conditions, and can only lead to inferior learning conditions for our students,” said Paul Elliott, OSSTF’s president.

Should conciliation fail, the union would be in position to call a provincewide strike. With only five weeks remaining in this school year, teachers may not hit picket lines until the fall. And elementary instructors, who are currently working to rule, may join them. That would be a battle that the government sought to avoid when it implemented a two-tier bargaining structure after the labour fights of two years ago.

“All parties, including OSSTF, must be prepared to compromise and find creative solutions,” Ms. Sandals said in the statement.

Local boards and their striking units are continuing to talk, including meetings this week in Durham, said Michael Barrett, head of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and chair of the Durham District School Board.

The three boards should find out this week whether they will win a case they launched at the Labour Relations Board, seeking to have the strikes declared illegal. Teachers can’t walk out over class sizes and prep time because those are issues controlled by the province, the boards argue.

In the meantime, students’ motivation is suffering.

“It’s difficult to say you’re going to study half a semester of calculus by yourself,” said Trevor Sookraj, a student trustee in the Peel District School Board and a student at Glenforest Secondary School.

Those who have been out of school for weeks are also worried about how they can compete for university spots with students from boards whose school year has not been interrupted.

“Grade 11s need final marks for university applications next year. Early acceptances and scholarships start coming in January,” Mr. Sookraj said.

Mr. Barrett said the affected schools will try to make up the lost time.

“Extending the school year is not our first option. We are going to try [to] compress as much as possible,” he said. “Of course, it continuously changes the longer we’re out.”

Other options include offering remedial online math courses for those heading to math or science university programs.

“The ministry has been very clear to us that the students from the affected boards are not going to lose the school year,” Mr. Barrett said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, May. 24 2015, 9:14 PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, May. 24 2015, 11:13 PM EDT