Ontario's students are bracing to go as long as two years without sports teams, clubs, field trips and after-school help as the dispute between teachers and the Liberal government drags on.
Students have been walking out of class to demand their favourite activities be restored, but they're unlikely to get their wish any time soon. While Education Minister Laurel Broten has legislative powers to block teachers from striking, she cannot force them to resume unpaid duties, such as coaching sports teams, overseeing student councils and helping kids after class who need extra academic support. As long as the dispute remains unresolved – and especially if the government forces an end to the strike – teachers are unlikely to resume extracurriculars until the government's imposed contract terms expire in the fall of 2014, say union leaders and school board officials.
"We could end up with up to two years of labour strife in this province," said Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association. "I'm not sure how they're going to come to a resolution to this."
Mr. Barrett said the strike could impact more than the activities students enjoy before and after school. He received an e-mail from a Grade 12 student who feared her grades are suffering without the after-school math help she had come to rely on from her teachers.
"It's not just school plays, it's going to impact student achievement," Mr. Barrett said.
Student Kelvin Brooks, who attends Grand River Collegiate Institute in Kitchener, Ont., fears the labour strife will mean his two younger siblings, one of whom will start high school next year, could miss out on extracurriculars that make for a more well-rounded academic experience.
"I'm afraid for them," said Mr. Brooks, 18, who participates in sports and was on student council. "With that coming to an end, what is there to high school other than class from 9 to 3? I'm afraid that some kids might lose their motivation."
Other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States compensate teachers for leading extracurricular activities, either through pay or time off. The Mike Harris government did suggest making extracurriculars part of a teacher's working day, but unions were strongly opposed.
On Monday, elementary-school teachers started the first in a series of one-day walkouts, which will close schools across the province over the next two weeks before the Christmas holidays. High-school teachers have withdrawn extracurriculars and stopped supervising students outside the classroom, expressing their frustration at the Liberal government and Bill 115, which dictates the terms of their contracts and restricts their ability to strike.
The teachers' unions have launched a court challenge of Bill 115, arguing that it infringes on their rights to collective bargaining. Union leaders contacted by The Globe and Mail Monday warned that the fight with the minority Liberal government would continue until Bill 115 was repealed.
"As long as the government allows the type of constraints in bargaining that Bill 115 has imposed, it's very unlikely that [a return to] normalcy will occur any time in the future," said David Clegg, president of York Region's elementary teachers bargaining unit, which will walk out on Thursday. "I think the government has so fundamentally miscalculated this whole situation, they've discounted the goodwill of teachers and how critical that is to public education."
Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said his members enjoy participating in extracurriculars, and withdrawing from these voluntary services is an indication of how strongly opposed they are to the legislation. Asked if the withdrawal of extracurriculars could last two years, Mr. Coran said: "I'm not ruling it out."
Premier Dalton McGuinty, who had built his now-tarnished reputation on labour peace in the education sector, appealed to teachers to stop their strike action, including walkouts.
"The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has disrupted nine years of labour peace over a disagreement about pay," Mr. McGuinty said in a statement. "It's regrettable that students miss any time learning, and it's unfortunate that families will need to make alternate arrangements."