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Parents, administrators watch teachers' strike as school year nears

Serenity McCleary, five, has a backpack filled with school supplies and new shoes for her first day of kindergarten. - Tyler Olsen
Serenity McCleary, five, has a backpack filled with school supplies and new shoes for her first day of kindergarten.
— image credit: Tyler Olsen

Next Tuesday has been circled on Raven Little’s calendar for months.

In January, Little’s five-year-old daughter Serenity began asking her mother if she would be going to school the next day.

After answering “not yet” one too many times, Little had her daughter circle the first Tuesday in September on a calendar. Serenity has been crossing off the days remaining ever since.

But with no end in sight to the teacher’s strike, Little is now considering when and how to tell her excited daughter that her first day of school might be delayed for an uncertain length of time.

“I haven’t told her because I’m hoping that by then it will get figured out,” she said Monday. “There isn’t really a way to say ‘I don’t know when school is going to start.’ ”

For the time being, those discussions are on hold as parents, students and local school administrators watch the province and teachers for signs of an impending deal.

After a series of rotating strikes began in May, teachers escalated job action to a full strike in June after the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) and the province were unable to reach a settlement. The last public proposal in June saw the BCTF asking for an eight per cent pay hike over five years with a $5,000 signing bonus. The province had offered seven per cent. The sides were further apart on class size and composition, with the province saying the BCTF proposal would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

A mediator was called in over the summer to bring the sides together, and it was hoped that a media blackout would cool tensions and lead to a deal. That hasn’t happened yet.

In a letter to parents released Monday, Abbotsford School District superintendent Kevin Godden wrote the district is still waiting to see what happens this week.

“A decision on school opening will likely not be made until Friday, Aug. 29 to provide the maximum amount of time to reach a negotiated settlement,” Godden said.

“We remain hopeful that the two parties will reach a negotiated settlement before schools are due to open.”

Godden wrote that the district is focusing on two possible scenarios:

If a settlement does happen, Godden expects schools to open as scheduled, although he cautioned that “there may be some delays in regular instruction, as course scheduling for students, particularly at the secondary level, may need to be adjusted.”

Without a settlement, Godden says “some or all schools” may be behind picket lines. Schools will be open, he said, but classes may not  be running, depending on what job action the teachers decide to take.

If teachers don’t return to the classroom, “we will again encourage parents not to send their children to school but to seek alternate childcare arrangements,” Godden wrote.

“The safety of our students is our highest priority. Should any students arrive at school while picket lines are in place, our school administrators will ensure that they are cared for until they can be safely returned to their homes under the supervision of a parent or guardian.”

Abbotsford Community ServicesChild Care Resource and Referral Program (CCRR) has been fielding numerous calls from parents looking to find child care for their kids in case of strike, according to program supervisor, Maria Cargnelli.

“We have definitely seen families struggling to look for care,” she said. The program refers parents to a range of providers with openings, but many of the daycares are having to adjust to the sudden demand for September full-day childcare.

Privately operated Kids Club Child Care Centre has extended its summer programs into the fall to accommodate parents, manager Chris Kinkead said. While Kids Club hasn’t yet been inundated with anxious parents, the strike has presented challenges for the daycare, which must increase its typical September program offerings and staffing levels.

Abbotsford Hand in Hand, which operates child care programs in elementary schools around the city, is already operating at capacity, executive director Cheryl Havens said.

The school district has promised to allow the centres to continue day-long programs into the fall, and Havens hopes picketing teachers are as welcoming to Hand in Hand workers as they were in June.

The government has promised parents $40 a day to pay for child care during the strike – funds which would otherwise be spent on teachers’ salaries if they were working.

But Havens said some parents are still feeling a financial pinch, and Cargnelli said the CCRR has been fielding calls from parents unsure how to access the money. (Staff have been directing parents’ to the province’s website on the program.)

As for Little, she has an infant and so won’t have to make alternate childcare arrangements. But she has found her own excitement for her daughter’s first day of school turning to something less happy.

Months ago, Serenity pestered her mom into buying a backpack full of school supplies. She has clothes picked out and has been talking up her brand new running shoes for school. But the schoolyard might remain out of bounds beyond the day circled on the calendar.

“It’s confusing,” her mom said. “They don’t know what’s going on or why they’re not allowed to go to school.”

“Especially if it’s until October like it’s rumoured, it will be bad.”

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