TORONTO, Ont. – Many school boards in the Greater Toronto Area hastily re-opened Friday after a ruling by the province’s Labour Relations Board quashed plans for a one-day political protest by Ontario public elementary teachers.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) issued a ruling at 3:30 a.m. Friday declaring the planned protest was “unlawful.” Shortly after, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) announced it had scrapped its protest and ordered members to report to work.

The board’s decision came just a few hours before thousands of teachers were set to stage a one-day “political protest” over the governing Liberals’ decision to impose two-year contracts under a controversial law.

But the ruling came to late, causing confusion among parents and students Friday morning.

School updates

Several school boards, including those in Toronto and Ottawa, had already decided to close their elementary schools Friday in anticipation of the protest.

But in the wake of the ruling, many boards, including the Toronto district and York Region boards, said their elementary schools would be open Friday.

The York Region District School Board said school buses would remain cancelled. Toronto police also warned Friday of a shortage of crossing guards.

Ryan Bird, a spokesperson with the Toronto District School Board, explained to 680News why they changed their plans.

“When it became very clear that teachers would be reporting to work today, as per normal, we made the decision that we have to open up our schools,” Bird said.

The Durham District School Board, Halton District School Board and Peel Region District School Board all said their elementary schools would be open and school buses would be in service.

Marnie Denton, a spokesperson with the Halton board, told 680News why the decision to finally open its schools didn’t happen until well after 7 a.m. Friday.

“It was very complicated and difficult — a number of decisions that had to be made very early this morning. We are very sorry for the disruption, and we really regret that all this inconvenience has been caused,” Marnie Denton, a spokesperson with the Halton board, told 680News.

McGuinty on dispute

Premier Dalton McGuinty put the best face on the dispute, saying the board’s decision provides clarity about the illegality of teachers walking off the job to protest Bill 115, which the government used to impose contracts on school boards and educators.

“The threatened job action introduced a lot of uncertainty into the lives of young families today,” McGuinty said.

“I want to thank parents for the roller-coaster ride they’ve been put on in recent days, not knowing exactly what would happen with respect to schools today.”

McGuinty said the labour board decision also prompted high school teachers to cancel the walkout they had planned for Wednesday. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation did not immediately return calls for comment Friday.

The ruling puts remaining questions about the legality of a bill that imposed contracts on some teachers “squarely in the sphere of the courts,” McGuinty said.

“Putting students in the middle of a dispute undermines goals I believe we all share.”

The outgoing premier, who leaves office later this month, called on teachers to resume supervising after class sports and clubs.

“There’s an opportunity to begin laying groundwork for more productive negotiations next time,” said McGuinty. “Resuming extracurricular activities would be an encouraging step forward.”

Conservatives, New Democrats blame Liberals for confusion

The Progressive Conservatives said the Liberals should have taken actions months ago to impose contracts on teachers to avoid rotating strikes in December and the threatened walkouts Friday.

“It became abundantly clear in November and December that ETFO was not prepared to sit down with the government,” said PC education critic Lisa MacLeod.

“It was equally clear that the government was not prepared to play hardball. We could have avoided the turmoil that faced moms and dads and students and teachers who want to teach, this week.”

The New Democrats said the Liberals were to blame for the confusion and chaos in schools for imposing contracts on teachers.

“We saw this coming when 115 was tabled and this is where we are at, completely predictable chaos in our education system brought on by a Liberal government who didn’t want to negotiate and simply wanted to impose contracts from the very beginning,” said NDP critic Cheri DiNovo.

ETFO’s response to ruling

The head of ETFO Sam Hammond said he didn’t agree with the ruling but would respect it, and told his 76,000 members to report to work Friday.

If they don’t comply, teachers could face fines of up to $2,000 each. Trade unions that engage in illegal strike activity can face penalties of up to $25,000 under the province’s labour laws.

ETFO and other supporters argued during the hearing that it wasn’t a strike, but a political protest that’s protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Government lawyers countered that any withdrawal of services would be illegal, as the teachers were no longer in a legal strike position once the contracts were imposed.

Board chairman Bernard Fishbein said he wasn’t persuaded by ETFO’s arguments.

“Nor am I persuaded that the Charter protection afforded to speech — whether ‘labour speech’ or speech generally — outweighs the disruption that will be wrought on the statutory labour relations scheme acceding to ETFO’s position,” he said in reading his decision early Friday.

“Accordingly, the day of protest that ETFO has indisputably authorized and supported for Jan. 11, 2013 is an unlawful strike under the act.”

Education minister’s response to ruling

Education Minister Laurel Broten, who imposed the two-year agreements on Jan. 3, said she’s glad the board confirmed what she’d said all along — the protest was unlawful.

“Now teachers understand from the Ontario Labour Relations Board that what they were being asked to do by their union was to break the law,” she said. “Teachers are law abiding and now that they know the facts, I know that they will report to work this morning.”

What led to the ruling

The ETFO planned a “political protest” after Broten imposed a two-year contract on teachers on Jan. 3 under Bill 115.

Premier Dalton McGuinty brought the issue to the OLRB, seeking to stop what he called the “illegal strike activity.” The union called it a “political protest” and said it’s permitted under the Charter.

Under Ontario’s labour laws, engaging in illegal strike activity can carry a penalty of up to $2,000 per person and $25,000 for a trade union.

Broten has promised to repeal Bill 115 as a “sign of good faith.” Public education unions claim the legislation violated their rights to collective bargaining and they’ve filed court challenges.

ETFO members held rolling one-day strikes last month to protest the legislation.

Bill 115 passed with the support of the Progressive Conservatives on Sept. 11. The legislation allowed the government to impose the contract on teachers that includes a wage freeze, 10 sick days — down from 20 — and grandfathering out the practice of banking unused sick days.

The contract was based on an agreement with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) and Ontario’s French teachers.