Students in Ontario return to the classroom on Monday amid mounting uncertainty over whether teachers will resume coaching sports teams and supervising other extracurricular activities.
The government triggered a fresh round of unrest in the province's public schools on Thursday by imposing new contracts on elementary and secondary teachers. Union and school board leaders said the discord between the government and teachers that began last fall will continue into this year, leaving it to Premier Dalton McGuinty's successor to try to restore labour peace after the Liberal Party chooses a new leader later this month.
The government had widely signalled that it planned to use its powers to unilaterally impose Bill 115, a controversial piece of legislation that dictates the terms of teachers' contracts and restricts their ability to strike. Education Minister Laurel Broten said the province's $14-billion deficit left the government with "no other option" but to freeze teachers' pay and slash their sick days to protect the gains made in education, including smaller class sizes.
Nevertheless, Ms. Broten's announcement that the government had actually made good on that threat outraged union leaders.
Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, called the government's decision "an aggressive move" that has further inflamed relations with teachers. He wouldn't rule out teachers continuing to curb their involvement in extracurricular activities throughout the two-year duration of the contract.
"That certainly still remains a possibility," Mr. Coran said in an interview. "It's a matter now of the members deciding to do what they believe they should do with regards to their own personal feelings."
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, accused the government of a "disgraceful" misue of power, and warned parents and students that it will not be "business as usual" when classes resume.
Mr. Hammond did not elaborate, but he noted that teachers have voted overwhelmingly in favour of holding a provincewide day of political protest. However, with strike action illegal under the new contract, union leaders are reluctant to run afoul of the province's Labour Relations Board by urging teachers to stage such a protest.
"I don't direct anyone within this union," Mr. Hammond said in an interview, adding that union leaders will explore their options at meetings next week.
It was Ms. Broten's effort to extend an olive branch to teachers that came in for the harshest criticism from union leaders, opposition members and educators. Describing Bill 115 as a "lightning rod," Ms. Broten pledged to cancel it before the end of this month as a "sign of good faith." Bill 115, she said, is acting as a barrier between students and their extracurricular activities. Once the government cancels the legislation, she said, teachers could resume coaching sports teams and supervising school clubs.
But critics called it an empty gesture, because the one-time legislation was to be in place only throughout the duration of the contract.
"It's like giving with one hand and taking away with the other," said Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education.
Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, said he fully expects teachers to continue withdrawing extracurricular activities.
Sarah Hay, who teaches autistic kindergarteners at Castlemore Public School in Markham, Ont., said the only avenue she has to show her displeasure with the government's decision is to stop coaching sports and running her school's equity committee.
"Sadly, that's the only thing we have to hold back," said Ms. Hay, who has been teaching for seven years. "But I mean, if your employer's treating you horribly, you're not going to volunteer your extra time. It's really sad because the students get put in the middle."