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Canada Mississauga students learn electives being cut as Ontario moves to increase class sizes

Senior students at a high school in Mississauga have learned that a number of courses in the arts, technology and social sciences are being scaled back or cut in the next academic year – providing a first glimpse into the impact of the Doug Ford government’s plans to increase class sizes.

The Grade 11 students at Cawthra Park Secondary School were called into the auditorium Wednesday morning, where school staff informed them that they would have to reselect their courses for their graduating year and should consider summer school, night school or online courses to pick up elective courses.

“When [they] said we have to reselect our courses, I heard a collective gasp throughout the room,” said Clara Kirby-McIntosh, a Grade 11 student. “Hands were shooting up all around the room. Kids were fidgeting, squirming in their seats. The collective anxiety was overwhelming.”

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The uncertainty comes as the government plans to increase average class sizes by one student in Grades 4 to 8, and to 28 from 22 in high school – eliminating an estimated 3,475 teaching positions across the province over the next four years as it tries to trim a deficit it pegs at $11.7-billion.

School boards have been scrambling to figure out what courses they can offer with fewer teachers. Many said they have had no choice but to issue layoff notices in recent days, fearing an anticipated decrease in government funding. The Near North District School Board said this week that it will be issuing “redundancy notices” to about half of its high-school teaching staff.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson has stressed that there would be no layoffs and that teaching positions would be lost through attrition, meaning that educators who voluntarily leave or retire would not be replaced. The government has said it will provide boards with $1.6-billion in transitional funding. In addition, it said school boards should not be making decisions on staff and course cuts until they receive their funding, which is expected on Friday.

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Kayla Iafelice, a spokeswoman for Ms. Thompson, characterized any decision to drop courses before the funding announcement as “irresponsible and unjustified.”

The Peel District School Board acknowledged that the course selection at Cawthra could be further modified depending on the funding announcement.

But Stan Cameron, chair of the board, said that if boards are forced to cut back on courses, it will limit the pathways for students, and ultimately affect graduation rates. The Peel board has issued layoff notices to 193 high-school teachers – about 7 per cent of its full-time secondary pool – because of the loss of some funding and increases to average high-school class sizes.

“We call on the government to provide school boards with the funding needed to support the success and well-being of all learners,” Mr. Cameron said in a statement.

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At Cawthra, a school of 1,275 students and known for its arts program, there will be five fewer teachers next year. The district said the school has cut 30 course sections, meaning that some courses including Grade 12 world issues will no longer be available, while others, such as Grade 11 chemistry and Grade 9 science, will have fewer time slots when they are offered.

In a note sent to parents on Tuesday night, principal Tyler McLeod wrote that while it remains a priority to offer courses required for postsecondary admission, “Cawthra is no longer in a position to offer students credits beyond those that are required. Cawthra Park will have fewer teachers next year and as a result, many sections have been cut. Every school in Ontario has been impacted by Ministry cutbacks.”

Ms. Kirby-McIntosh, 17, said students left Wednesday’s assembly anxious about next year. (Ms. Kirby-McIntosh is the daughter of Bruce McIntosh, the Progressive Conservative staffer who resigned after the government’s changes to the autism program, and Laura Kirby-McIntosh, a teacher at Cawthra and president of the Ontario Autism Coalition).

“For me, it’s a general feeling of confusion,” she said. “I want to go to university. I don’t know if I will have what I need to do that.”

Carolina Martinez, another Grade 11 student, said she has to decide between a science and a business course next year, because the changes mean she won’t be able to take both.

“The energy in the school has been very stressful. Everybody is really panicked,” she said.

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Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the situation at Cawthra is what his union “expected and feared" as a result of class size increases.

“Students will have less access to courses that will allow them to choose the path to their own futures," he said. "Ultimately, this will lead to a decrease in student success.”

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