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Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce leaves after speaking at a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto, March 3, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government has walked back its plans to increase high-school average class sizes and will make it easier to opt out of mandatory online courses as it tries to reach a deal with its teacher unions.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Tuesday that the government’s most recent proposals should be enough for unions to cancel future strikes and continue negotiations on a new contract. He also said that his government has made a commitment to maintain full-day kindergarten and fully fund supports for special education and other learning needs negotiated in a previous contract.

However, as part of the new offer, the government is requiring unions to comply with its wage-cap legislation, meant to limit public-sector pay increases to 1 per cent, and wants concessions on a seniority-based hiring regulation.

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“This is a positive offer, a positive plan and they should get to the table to negotiate,” Mr. Lecce said. “This plan is a responsible course forward when you’re at an impasse.”

All four major teachers’ unions have been engaged in job action, ranging from work-to-rule to one-day strikes, amid stalled negotiations and tensions with the government. Class sizes and mandatory online courses have been among the most contentious issues in bargaining.

Mr. Lecce said on Tuesday that his government has softened its stand once again on increasing class sizes in high schools to an average of 23, instead of the previous goals of 28 and then 25, which would have led to thousands of fewer teachers in the education system over four years. The current average is 22.9.

Further, he said that parents would have the ability to opt their children out of mandatory online courses required to graduate high school. The province had initially planned on students taking four online courses to earn a high-school diploma. In November, Mr. Lecce said the requirement would be dropped to two.

Just before Mr. Lecce’s announcement, the head of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said her union had told government negotiators well before Christmas it was prepared to accept the 1-per-cent salary offer “in order to bring stability and certainty into our schools" even though it believed the wage-restraint legislation was unconstitutional and was challenging it in court.

In exchange, the union asked the government to step back from its plan to increase class sizes, cut thousands of teaching positions and eliminate course options for students, Liz Stuart said. The union will be back at the bargaining table with the government on Wednesday, but has also planned a provincewide walkout on Thursday.

“The devil is in the details. We need to sit and we need to work through this,” Ms. Stuart told reporters at Queen’s Park, adding that her union had not received this offer when it recently sat down with the government.

Mr. Lecce made the proposals public as the province’s high-school teachers’ union was in “exploratory” talks with the government, and still deciding whether to begin formal bargaining that would restart negotiations. Up until this point, neither side had been at the bargaining table since December. The union tweeted on Tuesday evening that exploratory talks had ended and no future bargaining dates were scheduled.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said that Mr. Lecce had not presented the new proposals to his union, but rather held a press conference while exploratory talks were under way.

“The minister once again in another amateur-hour move interrupts that by going to a podium,” he said. “This proposal has not been put to the union. It’s certainly not been put to my union."

He added: “This minister chose to roll a hand grenade out on the table again and blow things up.”

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Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said his union has not seen any details of the government’s proposals. “We have learned from past experience that Minister Lecce’s public announcements do not necessarily translate into negotiating proposals at the table," he said.

Teachers and education workers have been without a contract since the end of August. Last month, all publicly funded schools were shuttered as the four main education unions took part in the first ever provincewide legal strike.

The issues for the various unions include class-size increases in high school, mandatory online courses for high-school students, benefits and a hiring regulation that gives supply teachers with more seniority an edge in getting chosen for long-term occasional and permanent teaching positions.

The concession comes a day after Premier Doug Ford called teachers’ unions “greedy” and said they have “held this province hostage for 50 years.”

“We put a very fair deal to the teachers unions,” Mr. Ford said at an unrelated announcement on Monday.

However, NDP education critic Marit Stiles accused the government of creating “chaos and confusion” in the education system by going back and forth on its proposals.

“We’re going to have to look carefully at what they’re proposing to see exactly what it means," she said.

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