Clubs and sports teams started a slow comeback at Ontario high schools Monday as the provincial government and union leaders returned to the bargaining table to settle a dispute that has dragged on for more than seven months.
Few clubs or teams were able to resume immediately, but school administrators expected extracurricular activities to be back in full swing when students return from March break.
Students in Windsor, Ont., were approaching teachers and principals Monday – the first day of school since leaders of the high-school teachers' union voted to stop political protests and restore voluntary activities – inquiring about their favourite teams, clubs and other after-school pursuits.
"It's the students who are initiating contact, and in the long run that may be the most important factor in this for teachers," said Scott Scantlebury, a spokesperson for the Greater Essex County District School Board. "Principals are starting to see a thawing in teachers' demeanour, and a return to normal."
That thawing was prompted by promises from Ontario's new Premier, Kathleen Wynne, to protect the bargaining process in the future and not to repeat the actions of her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, who imposed the terms of teachers' contracts through legislation.
Union leaders have been meeting with Ms. Wynne's government this month, and an internal memo obtained by The Globe and Mail shows that one of the issues being discussed is the three unpaid professional development days – which amount to a 1.5-per-cent pay cut – imposed through legislation. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) has also sought to protect its pay grid, a framework for salary increases in the first 10 years of a teacher's career, which the McGuinty government had called too expensive and had asked the union to review with an eye toward savings.
Negotiations are expected to focus on coming contracts that will take effect in the fall of 2014, and on non-monetary issues relating to existing contract terms. One possibility would be for teachers to trade three mandatory unpaid days for an optional window of between one and six unpaid days, a cost-neutral trade that was negotiated in local bargaining sessions in November.
Leaders of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario are also meeting with the provincial government this week, and will be considering whether to restore extracurricular activities when the leadership meets Wednesday.
OSSTF president Ken Coran said that the government's willingness to protect the bargaining process was important to the decision to end political protests, but that growing concerns that the loss of extracurriculars was driving students into the Catholic system was "definitely a concern."
Education Minister Liz Sandals said she is considering using legislation to revise the bargaining process between teachers, school boards and the provincial government.
"Step one is to have a more formal consultation process on what collective-bargaining structures look like going forward," she said. "That needs to include all four unions, it needs to include all four school-board associations and I don't know the outcome of that discussion, it's an open discussion."