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Students arrive at Ogden Junior Public School on Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Extracurricular activities have resumed in Ontario's public elementary schools. (For the Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood)
Students arrive at Ogden Junior Public School on Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Extracurricular activities have resumed in Ontario's public elementary schools. (For the Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood)

Return of extracurriculars at Ontario schools result of ‘dozens’ of hours of negotiations Add to ...

Negotiations between the Ontario government and the province’s public elementary school teachers over the implementation of contract terms and the creation of a new collective bargaining process led the teachers’ union to restore extracurricular activities.

The move is an important development in the relationship between the teachers’ union and Ontario’s new leadership, which began talking again after months of political protests and the withdrawal of extracurricular activities.

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The two sides spent “dozens” of hours negotiating over several days during the last week, said Education Minister Liz Sandals.

“In effect, we’re having a conversation which in a normal bargaining process we would have had at the beginning of the process – where we work out the details on how things are going to be implemented,” she said. “We have reached a point in the conversation where there’s enough confidence on everyone’s part that we’re restoring the relationship.”

The province is still in talks with both elementary teachers and their secondary school counterparts, who returned to extracurriculars last month.

“It’s not about money, there is no new money. [It’s about] implementation details, about what the collective bargaining process is going to look like going forward,” Premier Kathleen Wynne said.

She would not say what exact details were the subject of the talks, as the sides are still negotiating over them.

The two sides are trying to craft a new collective bargaining system that allows local control while still involving the province.

An internal memo to secondary school teachers indicated its union leaders were also seeking to protect the pay grid, which allows members to progress from an annual salary of $40,000 to $90,000 over 10 years.

Elementary teachers had previously refused to join secondary counterparts in returning to extracurriculars, saying they wanted more concrete promises from Ms. Wynne.

“ETFO is suspending its advice to members regarding voluntary/extracurricular activities because of progress with the current talks and a commitment that talks to address outstanding issues will continue,” the union said in a statement on Twitter Tuesday night.

The restoration of extracurriculars comes just in time for the spring sports season, grade 8 graduations and end-of-year trips.

At Ogden Junior Public School, a small elementary in Toronto’s Chinatown with about 220 pupils, including kindergarten, the mood was upbeat as parents and children started arriving around 8:30 a.m.

Chess and floor hockey were the chief means of plugging the gap in the children’s activities during the teachers’ protest.

“We’ve been carrying on, we managed to cobble together a cross-country team, I’ve participated other years but not to this extent, we really had to pick up the ball,” said school council chairman Paul Barker, who was unimpressed by the teachers’ action.

“I don’t know what they hoped to prove,” he said.

“The evidence is overwhelming that a lot of kids, when they get older, only stay in school for the extracurriculars. It enriches their lives in physical ways, in social ways, and I don’t know what any teacher gained by withholding that…It was all political, it backfired on them, it just made for a lot of angry parents.”

But Jay Murphy, a mother of two young children, including a son at Ogden, said she had no quarrel with the teachers.

“I think everybody has equal rights to fight for what they believe is right in their hearts, and I don’t fault anyone for taking action,” she said. “There’s a ton of causes that go on in the city every day, and I’m not upset with the teachers at all, it’s a bump in a long road...We’re really happy that it’s back.”

Ogden principal Andreas Ghabrial said he was just glad things are expected to return to normal.

“I think we’re all anxious about things moving forward positively,” he said. “It sounds great, I want to believe it’s going to be great, we’ll have to wait and see how the day unfolds. I would be thrilled if we were back in a state where there was peace.”

Teachers began protests in September when the Liberal government introduced legislation that dictated the terms of their contracts. It imposed a 1.5-per-cent pay cut in the form of three unpaid professional development days, cut sick days 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 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.

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