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Thousands of picketers from the four main teachers' unions march around Queen's Park during a provincewide strike in Toronto on Feb. 21, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The union representing high-school teachers has ended informal contract talks with the Ontario government and sees no way forward after the province went public with its latest proposal in trying to reach a deal.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said the proposal on class sizes and mandatory online learning, put forward publicly this week by the government, leaves no room for negotiating changes at the bargaining table. He said the government has shown “absolute rigidity” on a number of items.

“At this time, it has left us without a path forward," Mr. Bischof said on Wednesday.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced on Tuesday that his government was backing down from its proposals on class sizes and mandatory online courses – two of the most contentious issues in bargaining with teachers unions.

He said the government has softened its stand once again on increasing class size averages in high school to 23 for the length of the contract. Previously, the government had set a goal 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 have their children opt out of two mandatory online courses required to graduate high school. Parents would have to meet with the school’s guidance counsellor to determine whether the two online courses in Grades 11 and 12 would be appropriate for their child.

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.

Mr. Lecce told reporters on Wednesday that his government’s move should have spurred all four of the unions, instead of just one, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, back to the bargaining table. He criticized the unions for clinging to demands for wage and benefit hikes and a refusal to give up a seniority-based hiring regulation.

“The question is, how is it that we still don’t have a deal? How is it that I am before one federation and not four today?” Mr. Lecce said. “The time for a deal is today.”

All four major teachers unions have been engaged in job action, ranging from work to rule to one-day strikes, as tensions with the Progressive Conservative government have risen in recent months.

OSSTF was in the midst of informal talks with the government, the first time since mid-December, when Mr. Lecce made his proposals public on Tuesday. The union said on Tuesday evening that those talks had ended, and no formal bargaining dates were scheduled.

Mr. Bischof said government negotiators indicated that they had no flexibility to negotiate “crucial items.” His union has asked that class-size averages move back to 22 as they were last year, and online learning be voluntary.

“For them to claim that this is some great move forward for our students when it still compromises the quality of education in this province is something I’m just not going to tolerate,” Mr. Bischof said.

His union will continue its rotating one-day strikes at select boards on Thursday. Toronto high schools will be closed for the day as teachers and education workers walk off the job. The province’s Catholic schools will also be closed as the union has planned a provincewide walkout.

Both sides in this dispute have acknowledged that the key in this battle is to keep parents on side.

Sam Andrey, a former Liberal chief of staff for the minister of education in Ontario, said the government made significant moves this week and the public will take notice. Parents tend to support teachers, and it is too early to tell if the government’s proposals will change public perception, he said.

“If I were the unions, I would be wanting to get back to the table and try to strike a deal because the risk is that public sentiment starts to turn. To date, it’s very much been on the teachers’ side,” said Mr. Andrey, who is now director of policy and research at the Ryerson Leadership Lab.

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