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Ontario Minister of Education Laurel Broten. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Minister of Education Laurel Broten. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Food fight triggers concern over Ontario students’ safety during labour strife Add to ...

A food fight broke out at an Ottawa high school where students were left with minimal supervision, raising concerns about safety in Ontario schools as teachers take strike action.

Secondary teachers have refused to supervise students outside the classroom since negotiations fell apart between the government and their union early Monday morning. Young teachers and their automatic annual pay raises and the spectre of a two-tier system became the wedge issue that dashed hopes for a last-minute deal, The Globe and Mail has learned.

In the days since, teachers have been cutting back on administrative tasks, including putting a halt to supervisory duties. School boards have been compensating by closing gyms at lunchtime and hiring extra clerical or security staff to help out. Two boards – Upper Canada District School Board in eastern Ontario and Trillium Lakelands District School Board in cottage country north of Toronto – have given administrators the authority to shutter their schools if the situation becomes dire.

In Ottawa, the principal of South Carleton High School had to step in Monday after food fight broke out. Jennifer Adams, director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said that with teachers refusing to supervise students outside of the classroom, it places additional burdens on school administrators to ensure students are safe. Food fights pose a particular danger to students with allergies.

“This is a difficult situation for everyone,” Ms. Adams said in a statement Tuesday. “Our capacity to ensure student safety requires the ongoing co-operation of staff, students and parents. Without that co-operation, our ability to keep schools open is increasingly limited.”

In a radio interview Tuesday, Education Minister Laurel Broten said she didn’t support locking out teachers, but recognized that it was the only option if students were endangered in any way.

“The boards have … one of the tools that they have, really the only tool that they have if they think student safety is at risk, is to lock out,” she told CBC Radio One.

(The principal of South Carleton High was not available for interviews: A spokeswoman for the board said she was too busy dealing with the effects of teacher job action at her school.)

Members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) launched strike action after last-minute negotiations between their union leadership and the Ministry of Education crumbled early Monday morning. The government has asked teachers to wait until February before experience-based pay bumps take effect for younger teachers, but sources with knowledge of the negotiations said the union felt its members couldn’t wait that long.

Ken Coran, president of the OSSTF, said teachers are willing to accept a two-year wage freeze, but that changing the salary grid could be financially disastrous for young teachers.

“We are accepting of the wage freeze,” he said on Tuesday. “Where we have a problem is that members on the grid are also being financially disadvantaged, because they are not permitted to move up the grid in the manner defined by previous, well-established collective agreements.”

Teachers’ pay in Ontario varies board-by-board and according to qualifications, but newly certified educators start out at about $40,000 per year and climb to nearly $90,000 over the course of a decade. The Ontario government has said the grid is too expensive and hinted it may look to extend the time it takes teachers to reach the top of the pay scale. (Ten years is fairly standard for Canadian teachers, but some jurisdictions in the United States stretch out their pay grid over as many as 30 years.)

English Catholic teachers were able to reach a deal with the province in July by trading three unpaid professional development days in exchange for pay grid raises that would take effect on the 97th day of the school year, and a promise to review the pay grid structure with an eye toward potential savings.

Ms. Broten said that union leaders wanted pay raises to take effect sooner, but that she wasn’t willing to look at cutting instructional days or raising class sizes in order to offset those costs. “Those things are very much not in keeping with our focus on student success,” she said.

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