Ontario’s elementary teachers’ union has advised members to continue boycotting students’ clubs, sports teams and other after-school activities, sparking parent outrage and raising tensions in the province’s public schools.
Hopes had been high that the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario would follow a lead set by the high school teachers’ union. It advised teachers to stop political protests and resume overseeing extracurricular activities in light of a promise by Ontario’s new leadership to protect bargaining rights and resume open negotiations. ETFO’s leaders decided Thursday afternoon that they wanted more concrete promises from Premier Kathleen Wynne before they would stop political protests.
“Hollow platitudes are no substitute for real action,” said David Clegg, president of the York Region’s local ETFO chapter. “All ETFO members believe that given the disastrous decisions of the Liberal government over the past year that we are looking for concrete guarantees that will reverse those decisions.”
Parents have been struggling to minimize the impact of the teachers’ labour dispute on their children since September, when cross-country teams, parent-teacher meetings and school concerts started being cancelled due to political protests.
“It’s really frustrating that the kids are being ignored in all this and being used as a bargaining chip,” said Gord Wade, a father of three children at John Wanless Junior Public School in Toronto.
Like many Ontario parents, Mr. Wade has been volunteering his time and working with a neighbourhood sports association to keep some of his children’s sports teams going, but he said nothing can replace the opportunity for school-aged children to compete alongside their classmates.
The loss of extracurriculars is having a negative impact on the school climate and confidence in the public school system, said Annie Kidder, executive director for People for Education.
“It’s the destabilizing that actually is more distressing, I think, than the actual activities,” Ms. Kidder said. “It affects the feeling in the school. And that feeling in the school does make a difference to kids, parents, teachers, everybody.”
The activities being cancelled, including running clubs, soccer, baseball, and choir practice, are an important part of a school’s sense of community, she said.
Education Minister Liz Sandals said she was disappointed with ETFO’s decision, but will continue discussions. The job action by elementary teachers is pushing families to consider Catholic and private schools over public ones, raising concerns that enrolment numbers will be down and lead to teacher layoffs. The Ontario Labour Relations Board, meanwhile, is expected to deliver a decision on a case brought forward by two smaller school boards, arguing that ETFO has been engaging in illegal strike action by directing its members not to lead extracurriculars. A source at one urban Ontario school board said that ETFO’s decision to continue political protests had prompted discussions that other boards may launch a similar legal challenge.
“If they’re holding the line, then we have nothing left to lose,” he said.
Teachers began political protests in September when the government introduced legislation that dictated the terms of their contracts. The legislation imposed a 1.5-per-cent pay cut in the form of three unpaid professional development days, cut teachers’ annual sick days down from 20 to 11, and removed their ability to bank those sick days for a cash-out upon retirement.
Teachers stopped voluntary activities such as leading clubs or sports teams and offering students extra help after school. Elementary teachers staged one-day walkouts shortly before Christmas.
The Ontario Liberals chose a new leader in January and talks between both unions and the government resumed under the new Premier. Those talks have focused on protecting teachers’ bargaining rights by revamping, and possibly legislating, the negotiations process. Ms. Wynne has said she will not reopen contracts, but cost-neutral trade-offs for items like the unpaid professional development days are being discussed.