By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in Toronto
As labour negotiations with teachers continue, Ontario’s education minister is stressing that the government expects students to have access to extracurriculars when classes resume in September.
Stephen Lecce made the remarks at a Toronto-area press conference on Monday, where he highlighted the government’s plans to help students catch up from years of pandemic disruption.
He committed to having kids in class for the entirety of the school year and argued activities like sports and clubs – which have been cancelled in the past during labour actions – are critical to students’ overall success.
“I believe after two years of great difficulty, the right thing to do is to ensure a child returns to normal and to the full student experience, which includes the clubs and extracurriculars,” he told reporters.
“We are signalling our clear intent to have those services, those experiences restored, and to support children, and we know that educators care deeply about their kids, they will do the right thing and ensure that those experiences are put back for kids.”
His comments came as the government bargains with education unions before contracts expire at the end of August.
Negotiations were fraught during the last bargaining phase three years ago. Teachers took work-to-rule action at various points, which saw extracurriculars like sports and clubs disrupted.
Lecce said he’s confident, though, that the province will reach labour agreements that offer stability to students.
Initial bargaining meetings with unions began last week and Lecce said most have agreed to meet again during the summer.
“There’s one commitment we all have to make: it’s to these kids, to get back to normal schools,” he said. “We have a great deal of confidence we can do that and we look forward to landing deals as soon as humanly possible with every willing partner.”
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said she agrees with Lecce that extracurriculars are important but noted that they are voluntary for teachers to offer.
She said some teachers are excited to offer extracurriculars, but some are still concerned about COVID-19 risks in schools, especially now that masks are no longer mandatory. Many are exhausted from the pandemic or have other challenges with offering extracurriculars, she added.
“They are voluntary and I haven’t been told otherwise,” Littlewood said of extracurriculars. “I expect our members will, where they would like to have an extracurricular and offer one, they will, and some may choose not to.”
Littlewood said the first bargaining meeting was positive and she doesn’t see issues with reaching a deal right now.
Anne Vinet-Roy, president of the Association of Franco-Ontarian Teachers said the union understands the need for stability in schools two years into the pandemic but also stressed that extracurriculars are run voluntarily.
She said the government should work collaboratively to ensure the best possible post-pandemic learning environment for students.
“When the Minister of Education emphasizes the importance of complete program and extracurricular activities, he seems to forget that extracurricular activities have always been optional and voluntary for teachers,” she said in a written statement.
“To support this stability in the schools, we continue to have firm expectations: real significant investments will have to be made to take concrete action and make education a real priority.”
On Monday, Lecce also went over the government’s plans to help students catch up from COVID-19 disruptions including previously announced funding for tutoring and mental health supports.
He also discussed the health ministry’s plans to provide rapid COVID-19 tests to students and staff “whenever symptoms arise.”
The Opposition New Democrats were critical of the lack of new funding in the announcement. Education critic Marit Stiles said kids and education workers need more help, and said the government should have offered more money to help people get back on track.
The call for more education funding was echoed by Laura Walton, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario School Board Council of Unions.
“Announcing and re-announcing funding with staged photo-ops is one subject where this government gets a gold star,” she said in a written statement. “Actually following through to spend money on what students need is where Stephen Lecce and (Premier) Doug Ford get an F.”
The NDP’s Stiles also accused Lecce of pushing teachers to offer voluntary extracurriculars. She said educators want to offer the activities, but like Littlewood, she said those activities are voluntary, unpaid tasks offered by teachers who are burnt out from years of pandemic teaching.
“They do it out of the good of their heart, because they love the kids, so this should be something we celebrate, not something that we criticize them for when they feel exhausted and not up to doing it,” Stiles said.
“Let’s talk about why they feel exhausted. Let’s talk about why they’re feeling underappreciated. Let’s talk about what the last four years has done to education workers in our province, just like health-care workers. They are exhausted and at wit’s end.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2022.
Feature image – Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce arrives for Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet announcement and swearing-in ceremony at Queen’s Park in Toronto on June 24, 2022. Lecce says the government is confident students will be returning to school with full extracurriculars in September. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan.