Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the government has changed its position on higher class sizes and mandatory e-learning for students.
During an announcement at Queen’s Park on Tuesday, Lecce said the government is proposing an average of 23 students in high school classes in the 2020-2021 school year. He said class sizes for students in elementary school will remain the same.
The government’s initial position saw an average class size of 28 students.
Lecce also said students can now opt out of the e-learning courses — a change from the previous position of requiring students to take two classes online.
“We have been negotiating for hundreds and hundreds of days with an impasse,” Lecce said.
“The ball is in their court now. We’ve made a significant move that is in the interest of students.”
However, Lecce said the government remains steadfast in capping salary increases for teachers at one per cent. Teacher unions were asking for a two per cent increase.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, called Lecce’s press conference an “amateur” stunt that interrupted actual exploratory talks Bischof’s union was having with the government on Tuesday.
“We were still in active discussions and this minister chose to roll a hand grenade out on the table,” he said. “I would like to see him bring proposals to the bargaining table.”
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said Tuesday it would accept the one per cent wage increase if the province backed down on class sizes and mandatory e-learning, though it would continue with a court challenge to government wage restraint legislation.
President Liz Stuart said OECTA will return to the bargaining table Wednesday, but noted an average class size of 23 is still an increase over last year’s levels, and would still lead to lost jobs and fewer course offerings for students.
The unions also noted that when the government previously backed down to a 25-student class average, the move came with a “poison pill” because local class-size limits would be removed, essentially allowing the province to see the number of students per class climb indefinitely.
Lecce wouldn’t confirm Tuesday if that was still part of the offer, saying those discussions will happen at the bargaining table.
The minister said his proposals aren’t new to the unions, but they said Tuesday was the first they had heard of them.
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“The unions have known about – in some cases for weeks – about our classroom size decision, and yet we still remain today to be negotiating because of outstanding issues largely around benefit asks or … language related to merit-based hiring.”
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said Tuesday it would continue challenging that legislation in court as unconstitutional, but it would accept the one per cent increase if the government backed down on class sizes and mandatory e-learning.
Meanwhile, teachers and education workers are planning a mass protest at Queen’s Park on Thursday.
Secondary teachers represented by the OECTA and Toronto members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) are planning the demonstration, as the Catholic teachers hold a provincewide strike and high school teachers engage in a rotating strike.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) said it would start a new phase of rotating strikes if no deal is met by Friday. Their concerns relate to the preservation of full-day kindergarten and more funding for special educations works for children with special needs.
The OSSTF have not been at the table since Dec. 16 but have been involved in “informal” talks since Sunday.
—With files from Jessica Patton