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Education minister Stephen Lecce said the province and union representing education workers have reached a tentative deal on Sunday. (Nick Dixon)

TORONTO - A strike that would have closed hundreds of schools across Ontario was averted Sunday night as the province reached a tentative deal with the union representing thousands of education workers.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce and the bargaining unit for the Canadian Union of Public Employees announced that they'd come to a deal just hours before a midnight strike deadline.

“We can all leave this deal knowing we've achieved some incremental success, and that is important for the students of this province,” Lecce told reporters gathered at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto.

Neither he nor CUPE went into the details of the agreement, but the president of the union's bargaining unit said her side made no concessions.

“We were able to retain our existing sick leave plan,” Laura Walton said. “It was critical for us to provide that to our members and I am proud that we were able to achieve that. We were also able to achieve modest wage increases.”

Lecce said the new deal “strengthens the integrity” of the sick leave program.

The 55,000 education workers represented by CUPE include custodians, early childhood educators and clerical staff - performing vital roles that at least two dozen school boards said they couldn't safely operate without.

Those boards said they would be forced to close their schools during a strike, leaving some parents who were unable to either find or afford additional child care in the lurch.

Both Lecce and Walton celebrated avoiding such closures.

“My message in short to all the parties is that in making students the very centre of what we are discussing, we can achieve material successes that both keep them in class and provide that stability that we owe them, while materially advancing our shared priorities,” Lecce said.

“Throughout this process our goal has been to establish agreements that respect taxpayers, students and families, while also recognizing the important contributions of our front-line education workers,” Premier Doug Ford added in a written statement. “Our government worked tirelessly at the bargaining table to achieve this goal and as a result two million students will remain in the classroom where they belong.”

Now that a deal has been drawn up, CUPE members will hold a ratification vote.

But the good news was somewhat tempered by ongoing contract negotiations between the province and the unions representing teachers, whose contracts expire the same day as the education workers'.

“I appreciate there will be difficulty, and the angst parents felt really concerned me. I really feel for them that they had to wait for this,” Lecce said. “I don't want them in this position at all.”

The negotiations are happening as the government has ordered school boards to start increasing class sizes, moving to an average for high school from 22 to 28 over four years. Class sizes for Grades 4 to 8 will increase by one student per classroom, from 23 to 24.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2019.