An Ontario labour board ruling that declared a planned walkout by the province’s elementary teachers an "unlawful strike" came too late for most parents who spent the morning in confusion.

Parents in the Greater Toronto Area and elsewhere across the province went to bed Thursday night being told that schools would be closed, regardless of how the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled.

But they woke to find that everything had changed, leading to a morning of confusion in which they tried to decide to go ahead with the childcare they had arranged or send their kids to class.

The OLRB didn’t make its ruling until 4 a.m., deciding that any move to protest during normal school hours Friday would be considered "unlawful." That resulted in Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario President Sam Hammond grudgingly saying teachers should show up for work, as law-abiding citizens.

The problem was, parents who weren’t glued to their radios or TVs Friday morning didn’t get the memo, and many took the day off or took their kids to daycare providers anyway.

Even among those schools that were opened, most classrooms were only partly full

The Toronto District School Board said about half of students were absent from classes Friday, noting that the absence wouldn’t be counted against their record due to the confusion. The board compared attendance numbers to those of an overly-snowy day.

And some parents who brought their kids to school promptly decided to bring them straight back home again after realizing there wasn’t going to be much learning today.

“There’s only two students in class,” Toronto father Vipul Mehta told CTV Toronto, speaking of his daughter’s class. “There’s no use for two students… so I will keep her home now.”

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Friday he is happy the teachers decided to cancel the protest that would have closed elementary schools across the province.

And he implored them to resume extracurricular activities, saying "students need you."

"I would ask the federation to allow teachers to do what they most naturally want to do, which is to devote themselves to their students and that means doing more than showing up for school hours. It means providing enriched opportunities before school and after school," McGuinty told reporters.

He also thanked parents for their patience. "I'm pleased we got the ruling we were seeking. I'm disappointed yet again parents had to be put through this roller coaster."

Earlier Friday, Hammond said the union accepted the labour board decision but the fight was far from over.

"This is only one step in the process for us. We have a long road ahead of us, it does not end here, it will not be, cannot be, business as usual in our schools,” he said. “We will continue to do what we have done for over a year and stand up for our democratic rights as we move forward."

Hammond said the union would determine whether teachers will resume extracurricular activities over the next few days, adding "we will continue to look at all of our options to attempt to deal with how this government has mishandled this file … in the last 10 months."

The Ontario elementary school teachers had planned to spend Friday holding protests over the Ontario Liberal government's decision to impose contracts on the union using the contentious Bill 115.

High school teachers were set to follow suit next week -- a plan the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation scrapped with Friday’s OLB ruling.

During the labour relations board hearing, ETFO and other supporters argued the planned walkout wasn't a strike, but a political protest 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 -- the same argument McGuinty made in a news conference earlier this week.

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 around 4 a.m.

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