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Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca speaks with Don Valley West Liberal candidate Stephanie Bowman outside the Lawrence TTC Station in Toronto on May 5.COLE BURSTON/The Canadian Press

The Ontario Liberals are promising to reintroduce temporarily an optional fifth year of high school if elected, a move aimed at helping students who have suffered academically and socially over the last two years.

Party Leader Steven Del Duca said his government would reinstate Ontario’s Grade 13, which was unique in the country when it was phased out almost 20 years ago. He said the new optional year would allow students to catch up after the pandemic, which saw Ontario classes shunted online for longer than in other parts of the country.

“It’s been crystal clear, a lot of our kids have fallen backwards,” Mr. Del Duca told reporters outside a school in Kitchener, Ont., in front of a group of students.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath unveiled a revised plan to tackle the housing crisis. If elected, she told reporters in Burlington, Ont., her party would aim to get 1.5 million new homes built over the next decade, a goal set by the PC government’s own housing task force earlier this year in one of several recommendations it has not adopted. (The PCs point to record housing starts this year of 100,000, the highest since 1987, as proof their own housing policies are working.)

The NDP says it will end “exclusionary zoning” rules that allow only single-family homes in swaths of Ontario cities – another task force recommendation the PC government has not enacted.

Ms. Horwath would also set up a new Housing Ontario agency to finance and build 250,000 affordable and social housing units over the next 10 years. The NDP, which has also pledged new rent control rules, says the entire plan would cost $3.7-billion over the next four years.

“I want you to hold onto your dreams of home ownership,” Ms. Horwath said. “We have a plan that will give you a lifeline, that will give you that chance to be able to own your own home.”

While her new plan does call for changing growth polices to increase the amount of affordable housing “in pedestrian and transit-friendly neighbourhoods,” Ms. Horwath would not commit to restoring the Liberals’ density targets for suburban greenfield development that the PC government has weakened. But she said an NDP government would not fight municipalities that sought to increase density, such as Hamilton, which has clashed with the province over its insistence that municipalities designate more farmland for development.

In Bowmanville, Ont., PC Leader Doug Ford highlighted $730-million plans to extend GO commuter rail service to four new stations in Durham Region east of Toronto, including Bowmanville, while accusing the previous Liberal government of failing to make the plan a priority.

The Liberal Party was quick to issue a news release saying the previous government, with Mr. Del Duca as transportation minister, had approved the project in 2016, with construction to begin in 2019 and an opening in 2023-24. It was only in 2018, after Mr. Ford’s PC government was elected, the Liberals say, that the province’s Metrolinx transit agency decided to stop the process and launch a new study of the plans.

Asked about Mr. Del Duca’s Grade 13 promise, Mr. Ford said the previous Liberal government had closed schools and left them in disrepair. He also claimed that “50 per cent of our students, under the Liberals and NDP, they were failing math.”

Results from the province’s standardized tests, released in August, 2019, showed that the proportion of Grade 3 students who met the provincial standard – equivalent to a B grade – in math was at 58 per cent, while 48 per cent of students in Grade 6 met the provincial standard.

Mr. Del Duca said his Grade 13 program would be “structured” and include mental-health supports as well as financial literacy and civics courses, but other details would be worked out with educators and experts. He said it would cost $295-million over four years, and could be extended beyond that.

Ontario finally phased out its fifth year of high school, referred to as Ontario Academic Credit (OAC), in 2003, partly as a cost-saving measure. However, many students still do a so-called victory lap to boost their marks or take additional credit courses in a fifth year.

Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education, said any changes to make education more flexible could be helpful as the province recovers from the pandemic. But she said it was unclear if a Grade 13 year would make a difference. Plus, school boards have said they are already suffering from a teacher shortage in the province.

Karen Littlewood, head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the province needs a recovery plan for students whose education has been disrupted. But she called Mr. Del Duca’s plan “very optimistic,” saying she was unsure how a government would roll out a full new grade by September.

The Liberal platform also includes plans to end controversial standardized tests and replace them with a new “made in Ontario” assessment strategy, which Mr. Del Duca said would be developed with experts and “the grassroots,” aimed at measuring learning gaps in math and literacy.

The Grade 13 plan is the latest in series of education announcements from Mr. Del Duca, who has also pledge to cap class sizes at 20, hire 10,000 teachers and scrap the PC government’s two online high-school courses.

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