Parents of elementary school children in eight school boards across Ontario -- including Toronto -- will have to keep the kids home from school Friday but other districts were waiting for a last-minute decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board on whether teachers could stage a legal strike.

The OLRB began debating the legalities of the planned job action at 3 p.m . Thursday but by 2 a.m., no decision had been made, leaving students and their parents in limbo.

The Toronto District School Board decided they would close school on Friday regardless of the board’s decision. York Region District School Board followed suit along with Halton, Renfrew, Ottawa Carleton,  Grand Erie, Greater Essex and Kawartha Pine Ridge boards.

School boards in Peel and Durham are asking parents to treat the situation as a snow day, urging them to check media reports early in the morning to confirm whether or not teachers will stage the one-day protest.

The Durham school board sent out a news release late Thursday night, explaining the circumstances to parents.

“As of 11 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2012, we have no decision from the Ontario Labour Relations Board on the matter,” the news release said. “We continue to monitor the situation.  If the ruling directs the (Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario) to attend work and we can be assured we will have adequate supervision, DDSB elementary schools will be open.”

On Wednesday afternoon, elementary school teachers announced they wouldn’t attend class Friday, choosing instead to spend the day protesting a new labour contract imposed on them by Ontario’s Liberal government.

On Jan. 3, Education Minister Laurel Broten enforced Bill 115 -- otherwise known as the Putting Students First Act -- which gives the government the power to impose a contract on teachers if their school boards fail to negotiate a new collective agreegment by a set deadline.

When a new deal was not reached by Dec. 31, the Liberal government imposed a two-year contract on teachers. Under this contract, teachers will have their wages frozen for two years and will no longer be able to bank their sick days for retirement.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said the planned protest was an “illegal strike” and that the government would seek an injunction to prevent teachers from walking off the job.

“I understand that we have some differences. I respect their right to give expression to those differences,” McGuinty told reporters on Thursday in Newmarket. “Let's leave the students out of it.”

The ETFO said the job action was not a strike but in fact a demonstration of their right to engage in a political protest – a right protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Steve Barrett, one of the lawyers representing the ETFO at the Labour Relations Board hearing said, “If there is a little disruption, that is the cost of democracy.”

However, lawyers representing the province said the union is clearly breaching the Ontario Labour Relations Act.

"Whatever you want to call it, teachers can't withdraw their services during the currency of the collective agreement, regardless of their motive," said Robert Charney, one of the lawyers for the province.

The act says the following about a mandatory strike vote under section 78.3.

“If a collective agreement is or has been in operation, no employee shall strike unless a strike vote is taken 30 days or less before the collective agreement expires or at any time after the agreement expires and more than 50 per cent of those voting vote in favour of a strike.”

The act, under section 81, says the following about unlawful strikes:

“No trade union or council of trade unions shall call or authorize or threaten to call or authorize an unlawful strike and no officer, official or agent of a trade union or council of trade unions shall counsel, procure, support or encourage an unlawful strike or threaten an unlawful strike.”

Consequences of an illegal strike

If the planned protest is deemed to be indeed illegal, teachers who still choose to take that kind of job action could each face a fine of $2,000.

McGuinty would not say whether the government would actually fine teachers who chose to disobey the Board’s decision.

Last month, about 92 per cent of ETFO members voted in favour of a one-day walkout.

ETFO President Sam Hammond reiterated the group’s willingness to take action on Wednesday when he confirmed what teachers had planned.

“We are going ahead with our day of protest we will deal with whatever comes over the next few days,” Elementary Teachers' Federation President Sam Hammond told reporters Wednesday.

There are 76,000 elementary public school teachers, occasional teachers and education professionals in Ontario who are part of the ETFO.

The ETFO’s plan is to picket several locations across Ontario, including the offices of the Ministry of Education, as well as the offices of Education Minister Laurel Broten. Protests are expected outside the offices of Liberal leadership candidates, schools, and school board headquarters .

Hammond said he will be protesting outside the Ministry of Education on Mowat Block at Wellesley and Bay streets in Toronto.

High schools could be next

High school students could face disruptions next.  On Wednesday, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said it would hold a day of protest on Wednesday, Jan. 16 if the government doesn’t repeal Bill 115, rescind the current contract forced on teachers and commit to free collective bargaining.

"It is regrettable that the provincial government has chosen to continue down this path and not respect the rights of education workers," the union's president Ken Coran said in a news statement.

High school students have expressed their frustration for months as teachers have stopped leading extra-curricular activities in protest of Bill 115.

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