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Nova Scotia Students Locked Out of School as Teacher Contract Talks Fall Apart

It's a snow week!
December 5, 2016, 4:39pm
Photo by CP/Andrew Vaughan

Update: Less than a day after calling its emergency session, the House is now adjourned. Education minister Karen Casey scheduled a press conference for about 2 this afternoon. After showing up about 20 minutes late, she announced that the province was now satisfied with the safety of the work-to-rule action. Thus, the government wouldn't need to mandate a contract, she said. The move to close schools "was based on a clear threat to student safety," Casey said. "Those circumstances have now changed and they've changed for the better."

Casey said her decision to change course was based on a Friday memo sent out by the Nova Scotia Teachers' union outlining the details of how to keep students safe while teachers and administrators did the bare minimum of work. Casey announced the school closures on Saturday, a day after the memo was sent. Once the directives changed, Casey said, the province needed to "work with superintendents" to decide if they were adequate to keep students safe. While class is now back in session, the work to rule now continues: no extra-curriculars, minimal extra help for students, and no before or after-school programs. Casey offered no word on her plans for continuing to negotiate a new contract with the teachers.

Bargaining between Nova Scotia's largest teachers' union and the provincial government has spiralled into chaos this week. Students from K-12 across the province are locked out of classes, parents are irate, and the legislature has paused its own emergency session, where it had planned to pass a bill forcing a new contract down teachers' throats.

Talks between the province and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, which represents the 9,300 public school teachers who are at the bargaining table for a new contract, broke down last Friday, November 25. That led the union to announce that it would start working-to-rule on Monday, December 5th—working to the letter of their contract. That would have meant no extracurriculars; no lunchtime supervision; no online data entry; and no arriving more than 20 minutes before classes or staying more than 20 minutes late.

In a move that seemed to acknowledge the inadequacies of the current contract, provincial education minister Karen Casey held a surprise press conference on Saturday morning, where she announced that the work-to-rule plan would put students "at risk."

"We were warned that educational assistants may not be there to meet students with special needs as they arrive by bus," said Casey in a statement. "If only one student is stranded by the action directed by the union, that would be one too many."

At the press conference, Casey said that the union was overreaching in its interpretation of what a work-to-rule entailed, and students could no longer attend schools until the province could find a way to keep them safe. Teachers would still be expected to show up for work.

The province also called an emergency legislative session for today, with plans to introduce emergency legislation that would force teachers to adopt the terms of the last tentative agreement reached by the union and province this autumn—an agreement teachers voted down. That agreement would last until 2019.

But at Province House today, that legislation was nowhere to be found. Instead, 29 Liberal Members of the Legislative Assembly voted to recess the legislature only moments after the legislators all arrived to work. Premier Stephen McNeil and Education Minister Karen Casey were not present for the vote. 16 opposition MLAs voted against the recess. The recess means that legislators could be called back by Premier McNeil within an hour's notice, so politicians have to stay put.

House Liberal Leader Michael Samson said that the bill was put on pause so legislators could discuss how to keep students safe while teachers worked-to-rule with the union.

But according to the CBC, the NSTU says aside from one phone call, those so-called talks aren't happening. That's a message the union repeated on Twitter:

— NS Teachers Union (@NSTeachersUnion)December 5, 2016

Meanwhile, teachers are still at school, overseeing empty classrooms across the province which gives them lots of downtime to make their grievances known on social media.

Parents and students have no idea what's going to happen next. A couple hundred gathered outside Province House to protest the province's legislation early this morning, and more are expected later today.

"It's clear the government has spent some time preparing their case," said Dylan Edwards, who showed up to the protest with his 10-year-old daughter Sylvie, who felt like the Saturday announcement "was calculated to cause chaos."

Edwards says if that's what the government is trying to do, it won't turn him against the teachers. "We can see firsthand how hard the teachers are working," he said. "I know whose side I'm on."

While Liberals have been increasing their overall funding for education, teachers are frustrated that the government plans to phase out a financial award for long-serving teachers. They also say that the classroom has become an increasingly stressful environment with more data entry and clerical work. The teachers want to be able to bargain over their working conditions as part of the collective agreement.

Things have not been going well for McNeil lately, whose party won the provincial election on a platform that included "reinvesting in education after years of devastating NDP cuts." The teachers' last contract expired in July 2015. Two tentative agreements have been voted down by teachers since then.

Follow Katie Toth on Twitter.