Faced with deepening cuts to the time they get from teachers, students are pushing back, testing whether they can be more than pawns in Ontario’s latest labour battle.
While some high-school teachers will be wearing black Wednesday to protest against the Ontario government’s decision to legislate the terms of their contracts, thousands of students will be wearing team uniforms and school colours to protest against the cancellation of clubs, volunteer groups and sports teams.
Social-media sites such as Facebook are helping students mobilize, adding their voices to a political chess game that excluded them more than a decade ago, the last time teachers withdrew extracurricular support in a labour fight with the province.
“For students, this is just about getting the school year back to the way it was,” said Hirad Zafari, president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, who will be wearing yellow and black, the colours of Don Mills Collegiate.
The issue is urgent for Grade 12 students who want to list non-academic activities on their university applications, and who have seen at least one Brampton school – Louise Arbour Secondary School – scramble to arrange a commencement ceremony without teachers.
Middle-school students are using social media to fight back, too. Mashal Joyaa, a Grade 7 student at Churchill Heights Public School in east-end Toronto, learned that extracurricular activities were being cut at his school when he noticed his friends and classmates complaining on Facebook.
“They were angry at there not being sports, especially football at my school,” he said. He started a Facebook group to help mobilize kids from other schools and find out what was happening elsewhere in the province.
School board and Ministry of Education officials are struggling to do the same.
Although most schools haven’t been seriously affected – some are entirely business-as-usual – students at dozens of Ontario high schools are going without clubs and sports teams as their teachers express their discontent at what they see as the Liberal government’s attack on their bargaining rights.
School-board officials estimate that the biggest impact has been at the elementary level, where as much as 50 per cent of schools are seeing teachers pull back. The scale of the protest also appears to be growing, and many teachers are refusing to attend school open houses, while meet-the-teacher nights are turning into meet-the-principal nights.
“This is growing, not diminishing,” said Brian Woodland, a spokesman for the Peel District School Board, who is building a growing list of school activities being affected by teachers choosing to withdraw.
Without clear directives from their unions, teachers are divided and their protests are piecemeal. Parents, who were generally frustrated with unions holding schools hostage over pay grids and sick-day packages, have redirected some of their frustration toward Premier Dalton McGuinty, who suggested he could force a peaceful school year through legislation.
Instead, this school year has been the most chaotic in more than a decade. School boards are scrambling to understand how their schools are being affected. “It’s gaining momentum on the ground,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
Education Minister Laurel Broten said staff are “monitoring the situation.” They are in contact with school boards, attempting to build a better picture of whether teachers are withdrawing any services that aren’t considered voluntary.
“We are urging teachers to recognize the importance of extracurricular programs to our students, to raise their issues with us but keep the kids out of it,” she said.
Students are divided over who to blame for the disruption to their school year. Walkouts have been staged to criticize both sides: Those who walked out of Bramalea Secondary School in Brampton on Monday spoke out against the government’s tactics, while students who walked out of Runnymede Collegiate in Toronto on Tuesday were critical of teachers.
For the first time ever they are changing the public discussion, partly because they are better co-ordinated and more pro-teacher than their parents. The largest Facebook groups – Student Movement 2012, for example – are pro-teacher.
That may be because students are getting most of their information from teachers at this stage, and that may change, according to Mr. Zafari.
“It depends how long this lasts,” he said. “At the end of the day, we may start to see students getting more and more frustrated and demanding their extracurriculars back from teachers.”