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Ontario’s public elementary schools will add 401 specialist teachers to help the province’s youngest learners advance in their reading skills, according to a tentative agreement negotiated between the government, school boards and a teachers’ union.

The tentative deal, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, was shared on Thursday with members belonging to the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). A ratification vote is being scheduled.

The specialist teachers will support classroom educators in administering a reading screening tool in senior kindergarten, and Grades 1 and 2. They will also provide reading support, either one-on-one or in small groups, for students in kindergarten to Grade 3. ETFO’s tentative deal includes government funding for these specialist teachers for the next academic year and the following one.

Early-reading screening measures the foundational skills required to read proficiently, which includes identifying letters and sounds, as well as decoding words and reading texts. Research suggests that screening and supporting children who need additional help could minimize reading difficulty over the long term.

ETFO president Karen Brown said in an interview on Thursday that additional reading resources will directly help children who are having difficulty, especially after more than two years of pandemic-related gaps in learning. “It’s a win for our members. It’s a win for our students,” she said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement on Thursday that more front-line educators and early reading screening “will ensure our youngest learners are meeting standards and will get supported with additional resources.”

Last year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released a scathing report that said the province’s approach to early reading was failing many students. Children with dyslexia and special-education needs, for example, struggle with guessing and predicting text.

The OHRC recommended that teachers should screen students in kindergarten to Grade 2 twice a year to identify kids who are falling behind. “This screening data must be used to provide immediate intervention for students who need it,” the report stated.

In response to the report, Ontario revamped its language curriculum with a focus on explicit, word-reading instruction in the early grades. The province also said this spring that it was mandating an early-reading screening tool. However, teachers’ unions said the province was failing to bargain in good faith because the screener was among the items to be discussed in negotiations.

Earlier this week, Mr. Lecce said that his government, school boards and ETFO, the largest education union in the province, had reached a tentative deal, which if ratified would avert any job action over the next three years.

ETFO represents about 83,000 elementary teachers and occasional teachers, as well as early childhood workers, education support personnel and professional support personnel.

Compensation increases for educators will be decided by a third-party arbitrator, according to the tentative agreement. The union said it had asked for cost-of-living wage increases, plus an additional 1 per cent for each year of the contract.

The union has already reached an agreement with the government and school boards for its 3,500 education workers. Last month, members voted 80 per cent in favour of accepting a four-year agreement, which included a wage increase of $1 an hour. This would mean a 4.2-per-cent increase for an education worker earning $39,000 a year.

The government has urged the teachers’ unions to enter binding arbitration, which would mean no strikes or lockouts, because any items not agreed on at the bargaining table would be sent to a third-party arbitrator. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation agreed to use binding arbitration, if needed, to reach a new contract with the government.

ETFO, along with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, rejected the proposal. The unions said their items, which include preventing violence in schools and supports for special-needs students, would not be addressed through binding arbitration.

Instead, ETFO asked to work with a conciliator appointed by the Minister of Labour.

Mr. Lecce recently urged the French and Catholic teachers’ union to reach agreements.

The contracts for all of Ontario’s education unions, including teachers’ unions, expired in August, 2022. The tentative agreement between ETFO, the government and school boards is for a four-year contract.

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