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Canada Ontario’s plan to increase high-school class sizes threatens elective courses, school boards say

Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson attends Question Period in the Queen's Park Legislature in Toronto on March 26, 2019.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Several school boards are warning that the Ontario government’s plans to increase high-school class sizes will result in cuts to elective courses, including classes in art and technology and those in the skilled trades.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson recently announced that the average class sizes would increase by one student in Grades 4 to 8, and from 22 to 28 students in high school – changes that would lead to the loss of about 7,000 teaching positions and which prompted the head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation to caution parents and students of potential labour disruptions in the next academic year as contracts expire.

Thousands of students across the province are expected to walk out of classes on Thursday to protest the government’s planned changes to class sizes.

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Robin Pilkey, chair of the Toronto District School Board, said increases to the average class size mean that courses that require smaller groups of students, including auto shop or an arts class, would be in jeopardy.

“This is a big hit on high schools,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s going to have to look very different.”

Ms. Pilkey wrote a letter to Ms. Thompson this week outlining her concerns. The school board has estimated that changes to the high-school class size average will result in the loss of about 800 teaching positions.

“Students should have diverse learning experiences beyond the compulsory subjects. Such experiences are typically found in course electives, yet these are the subject areas most affected by a teacher reduction of this extent and a class size increase by this magnitude," Ms. Pilkey wrote. The board, she said, will know what classes are cancelled by the end of next week.

Ms. Thompson has said that no teacher would lose his or her job despite the changes. This means that teaching positions would not be filled as educators retire or voluntarily leave the profession.

Stan Cameron, the chair of the Peel District School Board, wrote to Ms. Thompson that increasing the average class size would mean the loss of small classes where students benefit from more teacher support. It would also reduce a school’s ability to provide specialized courses that expose students to the skilled trades, he said.

Mr. Cameron warned in his letter that it could result in a “dramatic drop” in graduation rates across the provinces, and called on the government to reconsider its changes.

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Shannon Binder, chair of the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board in Belleville, wrote to Ms. Thompson this week that the district has a mix of suburban and rural schools, and is already challenged in finding enough teachers and offering a range of courses to its high-school students. She said that reducing staff would result in even fewer course options for students. Ms. Binder was not available on Wednesday to speak to the effect on rural schools.

At Queen’s Park, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told the legislature on Wednesday that school boards are warning of teacher layoffs and cuts to elective classes because of the government’s planned changes.

Ms. Thompson dismissed Ms. Horwath’s concerns, calling them “fear-mongering,” and said her government’s public consultations were the “proper forum” for students, teachers and parents.

Later, outside the legislature, Ms. Thompson said boards and teachers have a “responsibility to ensure that students are learning at the school and that they’re safe,” but didn’t directly address questions about whether she felt students were being used for political leverage.

Outside the legislature, Ms. Horwath said the warnings school boards have made about cuts to art and other elective courses show the government is harming the public-education system.

“This government is basically telling this upcoming generation of students that are now in school that they are not going to get the opportunities that their peers in the past have had,” Ms. Horwath said. “ … I think it’s troubling that we once again have a government, a conservative government yet again in this province, that thinks it’s okay to whittle away our world-class public education system. And that’s what they’re doing.”

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