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Ontario backs down on class sizes, e-learning in teacher negotiations


March 3, 2020
By Allison Jones/The Canadian Press

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Ontario has almost entirely backed down on two of the most contentious issues in bargaining with teachers — class sizes and e-learning requirements.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government is now offering an increase in average high school class sizes to 23, just one student over last year’s levels, and a far cry from the 28-student average class the province initially announced.

“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.”

But as part of the new offer, the government is not budging beyond an offer to increase wages and benefits by one per cent a year, and wants concessions on a regulation that dictates seniority-based hiring.

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The Progressive Conservatives angered teachers last March when they announced they would increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28 — which would lead to thousands of fewer teachers in the system — and require students to take four e-learning courses to graduate.

The government partly backed off on both issues last year, but the unions had said the concessions didn’t go far enough, and they continued to ramp up strikes.

Lecce said the government will continue to develop a new online learning system, but an opt-out will be added, so there won’t be any mandatory requirements for graduation.

“We believe that online learning provides a multitude of benefits for students, particularly when it comes to diversifying the course offerings and really embracing 21st-century learning,” Lecce said.

“But at the end of the day we have listened and heard that parents want to be in the driver’s seat of that decision.”

All four major teachers’ unions have been engaging in various strikes during this contentious round of bargaining, and Lecce on Tuesday urged them to call of future planned strikes — including some set for Thursday — and bargain.

The unions have been asking for around two per cent in annual salary increases, but the government has passed legislation capping raises for public sector workers at one per cent for three years.

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.

Elementary teachers say their key issues include guaranteeing the future of full-day kindergarten, securing more funding to hire special education teachers, and maintaining seniority hiring rules.