B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister George Abbott chose a Vancouver school playground to highlight the start of the new school year, which will see the return of more than 540,000 students Tuesday.

Clark and Abbott promised the Liberal government will spend $8 million to build and upgrade school playgrounds around the province to ensure students have more safe, happy, play spaces.

A somewhat bemused B.C. Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert said playgrounds are welcome additions to B.C. schools, but with teachers in a legal strike position on the first day of school, the government's decision to focus on playgrounds appears "myopic."

"Almost to the point of Nero fiddling while Rome's burning," said Lambert. "I'm not saying that playgrounds don't need attention -- they absolutely do -- but right now we've got a bigger issue in front of us."

Students won't be greeted by picket lines, but teachers will not be supervising those playgrounds or doing many of the other jobs they normally do above teaching as a form of strike action.

Teachers are an essential service under B.C. labour law and while they have limited rights to conduct job action, they can't legally shut down the entire school system.

The five-year contract between the BCTF and B.C. Public School Employers' Association giving teachers an average 16-per-cent pay raise and $4,700 bonus expired on June 30.

The teachers, who have yet to table their new wage demands, say they want a raise because their pay has fallen to eighth-place from third in Canada. Teachers also want more say in the size and composition of classrooms.

The employer disputes the eighth-place ranking, saying B.C. teacher wages have dropped to fourth in Canada from third during the last contract or seventh in the country from sixth depending on which provincial scales are used.

Hugh Finlayson, with the B.C. Public School Employers Association which bargains on behalf of B.C.'s 60 public school boards, said teacher benefit demands for leaves, holidays and pensions add up to $2.1 billion, with wages still not on the table.

He said two-thirds of B.C. public service workers have already negotiated contracts that fall within the government's net-zero wage structure -- no wage increases during the length of the contract -- but the BCTF is trying to buck the trend.

"You have this rather dynamic and energized set of bargaining around this set of items which is an extensive set of items where everybody else has settled within a net-zero mandate," Finlayson said.

Lambert disputes the employers' $2.1 billion estimate.

"We don't agree with that costing," she said. "It's something that's pulled out of the air in our opinion."

Abbott and Lambert freely admit that the contract dispute hangs like a dark cloud over the start of the school year, but both say parents have nothing to worry about.

Lambert said the teachers are fighting to improve education for students, and they are returning to school seeking to give their students the best education available.

She said teachers will withhold some services, such as parent-teacher interviews and report cards, but there will be no picket lines or walk outs.

"Parents won't see much of a difference initially, nor will students," said Lambert. "The first thing that parents may notice is that there's not going to be any formal parent-teacher interviews."

Abbott said he will keep close watch to ensure the school year gets off to as smooth a start as possible under the current labour-management conditions.

He did not directly say the government is prepared to legislate an end to the dispute and impose a contract, but he is worried about the way the year is starting.

"We obviously are concerned about the impact the bargaining dispute may have on the learning environment," Abbott said. "We will be monitoring the situation very closely as we move into the fall."

Employers association chairwoman Melanie Joy said the strike will have an impact on the school environment.

"It's sort of a dark cloud that will affect the morale," she said. "The teachers are integral to the schools and what goes on within them."

Opposition New Democrat education critic Robin Austin said the NDP will be pushing the government to address the B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found the Liberals should not have taken away the right teachers had to include class size and composition language in their contract.

"In terms of class sizes and composition, I don't think there's any argument there that the government has to move on that," he said.

Teachers staged a 10-day provincewide illegal walkout in 2005, and were later fined $500,000 for contempt of court.

Abbott said the start of the school year will make history this year beyond the labour front because it is the first year all-day kindergarten starts provincewide.

Five year olds entering school this year for the first time will spend full days at school as opposed to past practice where youngsters attended for morning or afternoon sessions.

"That's about 37,000 full-day Kindergarten students," said Abbott. "That's going to be exciting."