It’s almost reminiscent of March 2020.

As a wave of COVID-19 continues to surge in Ontario, the Ontario government and Ontario’s education workers are at the negotiating table – hoping to avoid a strike with school resuming in less than two weeks.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees says over 250 education workers, representing their 55,000 coworkers across the province, gathered to call for improved wages, increased services for students and a reinvestment in public education ‘after a decade of government cuts.’

The new fight between the two parties comes after the Ontario government unveiled their 4-year plan for education workers two weeks ago, with 2 per cent wage increases for staff earning under $40,000 annually and increases of 1.25 per cent for staff above that mark.

CUPE, meanwhile, responded by pointing out that Canada’s inflation rate is nearly 8 per cent – calling the plan an ‘attack’ on education workers. Unions have since called for wage increases of above 11 per cent.

The Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which is part of CUPE, says they will not call a strike vote until September 23, with voting ending by October 2. CUPE says members have unanimously supported the move, and strike action could take place in early October.

In response, Parliamentary Assistant to Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Patrice Barnes, says the government si continuing negotiations, but staff have a safe return to school as their top priority.

“The priority for us is getting kids back in class and getting things back to as close to normal as possible. We are doing good faith bargaining. We want to be at the table and get a fair deal for our education workers,” says Barnes.

“We recognize that they are an integral part of our school. We are working hard to get a fair deal and get them back to school as well. They as well want to get back to normal.”

The provincial government says its education plan for 2022-2023, Ontario’s Plan to Catch Up, prioritizes getting children back into the classroom with a ‘full’ school experience, tutoring supports to fill gaps, preparing students for future jobs, funding school improvement work and historic funding in mental health supports.

The plan adds over $26.6 billion in funding for the 2022-2023 school year, $175 million for advanced tutoring programs and up to $304 million to hire 3,000 front-line staff, teachers, education workers and assistants.

Students are set to return to school by September 6, 2022, in northwestern Ontario.

The Ministry of Education says after consultations with medical professionals and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, students will have the choice to wear face masks during the 2022-2023 school year, and school boards will have access to free rapid antigen tests.