Education workers hope provincial election will bring change

Panellists cite teacher shortage, class sizes, e-learning, backlog of capital projects as major concerns

GUELPH – Panellists of the third instalment of the “Informed Democracy” series hope Ontarians will vote for an education-friendly candidate in the upcoming provincial election.

They made their case for voting out the Conservatives at a forum on April 6 hosted by the Guelph Wellington Coalition for Social Justice.

“We have many concerns with this government,” said Cindy Gage, president of the bargaining unit for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation’s Halton local.

Gage listed class size, e-learning, de-streaming, deficiencies with ventilation systems in schools, and a $16-billion backlog of capital projects as the main causes of concern.

She noted streaming – students choosing applied or academic streams in high school – has been shown to have a negative impact on Black, Indigenous and students of lower socioeconomic status as they tend to be directed to the applied stream and are therefore less likely to pursue university or college degrees.

September 2021 was the first year for de-streamed math courses for Grade 9 students and going forward science, history and English will also be de-streamed.

Gage said the union does support de-streaming, “but for de-streaming to be effective, you need program supports to catch the kids who are falling behind and re-engage with them,” she said.

Right now, “students are missing those supports,” she added.

As well, there has been no time for teachers to train on the new program.

And class sizes, normally larger in  academic courses than applied, remain at the academic levels, making it even more likely for students already struggling to fall further behind.

Jen Hesch, president of the Guelph and District Labour Council and vice president and chief negotiator at the Upper Grand local of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, said she’s concerned about the health and safety of students and staff as mask mandates have been lifted.

The whole pandemic has been stressful, she said, but parents are sending sick children to school and COVID is running wild.

“[COVID] is rampant now with unmasking and we’re seeing a rise in numbers,” she said, adding one school with 400 students saw 100 students off sick on the same day.

Hesch said it’s always been hard to find supply teachers to fill in when teachers become ill, but it’s been especially so during the pandemic. Many occasional teachers are unwilling to go into a school they know to have COVID.

On top of that, many occasional teachers work for several school boards just to patch together full-time hours. So now school boards are competing for occasional teachers.

David Del Duca, Wellington County’s representative for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), said there’s also a teacher shortage, thanks to the government reducing the number of spaces in teacher’s college.

And that, combined with many teachers choosing to retire now due to the extra demands of the pandemic, is really putting pressure on the teachers that remain.

“There isn’t a plan in place for the teacher shortage,” he said.

Del Duca said the government has given money to school boards for extra tutoring to help students who have fallen behind during the pandemic but has pulled back on base funding.

“And then the handouts. The province gave parents $200 per child for no reason. That’s almost $1 billion that could have gone to classrooms,” he said.

Mike Foley, a trustee at the Upper Grand District School Board, said governments have a way of demonizing public servants just when contract negotiations are about to begin. Teacher contracts expire in August.

“I see that happening now with education staff,” he said. “They are trying to turn public opinion against [teachers]. We have to set people straight.”

Del Duca agreed.

“When work pivoted to remote, there was an outpouring of support. Everyone recognized how important teachers are,” he said.

“That’s what we need from the government. We need them to have faith in our abilities. Morale is low with education workers right now.”

The panelists encouraged people to attend all-candidates meetings, to ask hard questions of candidates, and to keep education in mind at the polling station.

“Endorse an education-friendly candidate in your riding that has the best chance of defeating a Conservative,” said Gage.

There’s one more session in the Informed Democracy series and it will tackle the environment and climate change. It’s on April 20 from 7 to 8:30pm.

The link to register can be found on the Guelph Wellington Coalition for Social Justice Facebook page.