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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.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s Education Minister says parents have “little tolerance” for school disruptions and his government plans to reach negotiated agreements with education unions, whose contracts expire at the end of August.

Speaking at a press conference in Ajax, Ont., on Monday, Stephen Lecce also said the government insisted extracurriculars be part of the school experience this fall, even though teachers volunteer to run clubs and sports.

“Our government’s intention in these negotiations is to land a voluntary agreement that keeps children in class and gets them back with the full student experience,” Mr. Lecce told reporters.

Ontario kept schools closed to in-person learning more than any other province during waves of COVID-19. Educators, parents and policymakers have expressed concern about the achievement gaps in learning, as well as the social and emotional struggles of students.

Prior to the pandemic, all four of the main education unions had been engaged in job action – ranging from work-to-rule to one-day strikes – as tensions with the government rose. They reached agreements with the province just as COVID-19 washed onto Canadian shores in early 2020.

Mr. Lecce said on Monday that he’s confident that the province will reach agreements with the unions. “That is our single focus over the coming months,” he said.

He was at a school in Ajax to highlight the province’s plan to help students “catch up” after more than two years of disruptions. However, the effect of the pandemic on learning is unclear because, unlike other countries, there is a scarcity of data that shows how students have fared.

Mr. Lecce reintroduced his government’s plans for the upcoming school year, including $175-million in tutoring supports for students that is focused on math, reading and writing. He committed to having students in school for the entire year, and said that extracurricular activities are an important part of a normal school year.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, was heartened to hear of a plan to help students return to a more normal academic year. “I share the wishes of the Minister of Education that we have a full school experience,” she said.

The union met with the government and school board representatives last week, and Ms. Littlewood said she is waiting to learn of more meeting dates. Other unions have also met with the government.

“We’ve got interest in having a deal. At this point in time, we don’t know what the government is going to offer,” Ms. Littlewood said.

“We’d love to have a voluntary deal … but we’re really at the starting stages right now,” she added.

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