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A mock classroom was set up on the lawn of Queens Park on Aug. 12 to demonstrate what some are calling inadequate plans by the Ford government to reopen schools safely amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the province’s teachers unions must be flexible as his government seeks major changes to the Toronto District School Board’s pandemic reopening plan just three weeks before classes begin.

Last week, the Ontario government rejected plans from the Toronto board, the country’s largest, that would have reduced class sizes in elementary schools and shaved 48 minutes of teaching time off each school day to preserve contractually guaranteed preparation time for teachers.

Now, the province is asking teachers to be flexible on their preparation time in order to maximize in-class instruction – a demand the government says teacher unions refuse to discuss.

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The confrontation echoes the bitter, drawn-out contract talks that just ended in the spring, as COVID-19 hit.

Speaking to the media on Monday, Mr. Ford accused the unions of failing to work with the government and mounting political attacks. Union leaders say they have been flexible, and that Mr. Ford is trying to deflect blame for the confusion over school reopening plans.

“I’m begging the teachers unions. Like, just work with us. Like man, come on. We work with everyone, absolutely everyone,” Mr. Ford said.

He added that his government has listened to the unions’ concerns, announcing millions in new funding for better ventilation in schools, enhanced cleaning and allowing the use of school board reserve funds to hire more teachers.

“Anything you ask, we do. We ask for a little bit more, and you shoot it down. It’s just not fair,” the Premier said.

Asked if the government wants teachers to prepare on their own time, Education Minister Stephen Lecce called on the unions to make sacrifices, as others have, noting that many people have lost their jobs or had to change how they work.

“What we’re asking for is flexibility,” Mr. Lecce said. “Every single subsect of society has had to be flexible, changed their behaviour, adapted, pivoted, to really rise to the challenge, which is a generational, once-in-a-century pandemic.”

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The Ford government has also told the TDSB to rework its plan for high schools, which included a hybrid of in-class and online learning, with 25 per cent of time in a classroom. Ontario says it wants that number at 50 per cent.

Union leaders insist they are being flexible, and that the issue of prep time hadn’t come up before.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said it “did not get far enough in the discussions” to talk about preparation time with the Ministry of Education or the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. In a statement, the union declined to comment further on the Premier’s remarks.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), described the government’s comments on the lack of union flexibility as “patently false.” He said that since the government downloaded planning to school boards, the provincial union has given more authority to its locals and told the government it is prepared to approve local changes to the central collective agreement “where that is constructive.”

He added that Mr. Lecce’s “efforts to continue to blame the unions for his incompetence are frustrating and counterproductive.”

Leslie Wolfe, president of OSSTF Toronto, said the government is simply looking to shift blame, especially as parents and educators grow more anxious about the return to school.

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“The problem is this government has tried to create a school reopening plan on the cheap,” Ms. Wolfe said.

Educators use preparation time to plan lessons, mark assignments, liaise with special-education teachers, respond to parents and even to help individual students. Elementary teachers receive 240 minutes every five days. High-school teachers receive 75 minutes a day, although some of that time could be used to cover a class for an absent teacher or supervise cafeterias or hallways.

A draft discussion document on reopening that circulated between the government, school boards’ association and the unions earlier this month included some language on preparation time.

The document, marked confidential and obtained by The Globe and Mail, said that in some circumstances, teachers could be asked to use prep time to cover for absent staff.

“Lost preparation time can be ‘paid back’ and it is noted that an extended period of time may be required to compensate for the lost preparation time,” the document said.

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