03/08/2012 08:02 EST | Updated 05/08/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. Teachers Strike: Teachers Defiant As They Head Back To Classrooms


VANCOUVER - On day one of British Columbia's teachers' strike, Grade 8 student Amenah Mustafa was stoked to sleep in late and socialize on Facebook. By day three, she was bored.

As she and 570,000 students returned to public schools provincewide Thursday, the 14-year-old said she found the scenario that's played out this week "kind of strange.

"Usually teachers are encouraging us to go to school. But now they're encouraging us to leave."

As students struggled to grasp the mixed message, both the teachers' union and government offered up some clarity on how the coming weeks will roll out even as their dispute continues.

The province's 41,000 teachers will refrain from staging a second-round strike next week, the B.C. Teachers' Federation said just hours before the Education Minister stated that he expects back-to-work legislation to pass within seven days.

The B.C. Liberals majority ensures Bill 22, the Education Improvement Act, will soon be proclaimed law — curbing any future job action and compelling teachers to end the limited strike action they've carried on since September.

But late Thursday, the Opposition New Democrats signalled they weren't prepared to allow the law to sail through the legislature without attempting to extend and change the debate.

NDP House Leader John Horgan introduced an amendment to Bill 22 that calls for the appointment of an independent mediator to resolve the dispute.

"I'm proposing a cooling off period for the parties in this legislature," said Horgan.

The bill extends the current, expired contract and appoints a mediator, who will work with all sides to reach a new deal that still falls within the government's net-zero wage mandate.

While the dispute appeared to be cooling off ahead of the legislation, Education Minister George Abbott's comments to reporters in Victoria indicated he wasn't optimistic a settlement could be reached even with the extra help.

"We've checked on Mahatma Gandhi, he's not available," the minister quipped, referring to the long-dead independence leader in India who preached non-violent resistance to end colonial rule.

It's the second such reference the minister has made to needing a miracle worker to settle the acrimonious dispute. Earlier, Abbott said the mediator would need the ability to walk on water.

MLAs continue to debate the bill in the legislature.

"I'd love to see this resolved by next Thursday so that as parents, and as teachers go into spring break, they have some certainty as to what the situation will be when they come out of it," Abbott said.

The break commences for some schools next week and for others, March 19.

Abbott said he expected parents will receive the first completed report cards of the school year for their children in the days following spring break. Teachers have been refusing to complete reports cards as part of their strike action.

"What we will be doing, effective with the passage of this bill and effective with the completion of spring break, is to have the schools proceed as expeditiously as they can to preparation of report cards," he said.

In response, Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert said Thursday evening that members won't write report cards retroactively once Bill 22 passes.

"The minister knows full well that teachers have been communicating with parents to ensure they are aware of how their children are doing in class," she said in a statement.

“In fact, many parents have said they prefer the more informal personal contacts to the official reporting.”

The dispute continued, with a further response from Abbott who said he was "surprised, disappointed, even astounded" Lambert would take such a position.

"We think report cards are hugely important to parents and to students," he said.

"They are the one way across an entire education system that parents have an opportunity to know how their children are doing in school."

Earlier in the day, Lambert said the union had decided to postpone a planned vote for its members that would have set the next steps in the job action.

That vote could have approved a one-day walkout as early as Monday, but Lambert said that owing to the BCTF's annual general meeting next weekend, the executive has decided to "stay the course." They will re-examine the decision come March 19.

Teachers have asked for benefits and a 15 per cent wage increase. The government has said it won't put any new money into the contract, in line with about 130 or so other public sector contracts that have already been settled.

Grade 8 student Kiran Bowers said that while he enjoyed practising basketball over the three-day break, he found the ordeal to be a "big, big" waste of time.

"It was fun, but coming back to school, we're like, 'What?' We don't know what we're learning," he said, noting the disjointed schedule made Thursday's math class seem more difficult. "It gets harder."

At a nearby elementary school, youngsters oblivious to the dispute were rushed through double-doors by parents clutching backpacks. Tots whooped it up on the playground, skipping rope and bouncing a giant green ball.

Nicole Donnelly, the Vancouver mother of a seven-year-old, said she was happy to spend a little extra time with her daughter — although the little girl had to sit through her mom's meetings.

She said she supported the teachers, but the friction hadn't made her think any less of the provincial government.

"As long as my daughter gets a good education," she said, noting it's also parents' responsibilities to ensure their kids are raised well.

"I think they'll work it out."

— With files with Dirk Meissner in Victoria, CKNW and News1130

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