Traffic was lighter than usual on Newmarket’s main arteries this morning, but in some neighbourhoods near public elementary schools that closed today during rotating strike action, the picket line was hopping.
More than 100 Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) members marched the picket line outside of Stonehaven Elementary School in the bitter cold, carrying signs that read, “My students are the reason #cutshurtkids”, “Don’t be fooled, I’m going to high school #No E-Learning”, “It’s time to use our outside voices”, and “Class size matters”.
Today’s demonstration marks the first time that York Region District School Board elementary teachers, occasional teachers, designated early childhood educators, professional support personnel and education support personnel have walked off the job since contract talks broke down in December 2019.
The ETFO now joins the province’s three other major teachers’ unions in escalating job action until new collective agreements are reached. The Toronto and Ottawa public boards’ elementary schools also shut down today.
The elementary teachers’ union, which represents 83,000 members across Ontario, has vowed to carry out rotating school strikes every day this week in various boards across the province until bargaining negotiations restart.
Newmarket teacher Ann-Marie Hulse, whose Grade 7 daughter Teagan joined her on the Stonehaven picket line, said parents aren’t buying into the government’s claims that this job action is about teachers’ salaries.
“Parents are understanding that these cuts are going to affect them,” said Hulse, who has been teaching for nearly 30 years. “And I believe that a number of these parents and some of our young teachers were the ones affected by the (former Ontario premier Mike) Harris education cuts.”
Hulse said that students with special needs and those who need supports, for example, will be impacted the most by recent cuts to education funding.
“The ones who will struggle the most, of all the cuts to all the children, are our special education kids,” Hulse said.
Teagan said she joined the picket line today to support her local teachers, elementary and secondary “because there is no reason that they shouldn’t be paid for their work”.
“Everybody deserves a right to go to school and be safe,” she said, adding that her Grade 7 class has 25 students. “Right now, not everybody gets one-on-one time.”
Mandatory e-learning courses remain top of mind for the striking education workers.
“She’s headed to high school soon and the e-learning component is something that is going to be challenging for many, many students,” Hulse said.
ETFO York Region local vice-president Darren Campbell, who was on the Stonehaven school picket line this morning, said the messages coming from Education Minister Stephen Lecce about compensation being a key union concern “couldn’t be further from the truth”.
“That’s certainly his talking points, and it’s tiring to hear that,” Campbell said. “Particularly when he’s not at the table and his team at the table don’t seem to be empowered to do anything.”
“We’re out here to bring attention to the government so they can get back to the table,” he added. “We’re out here for teachers and students, and it’s a shame that we have to be out here today. We’re rotating so we’ll be back in tomorrow, but this government has to get to the table.”
Campbell and other teachers on the picket line said they’ve been receiving support from students and parents.
“It’s a whole community event here today, that’s what I’m seeing all the way around the region, and that’s encouraging,” Campbell said. “And the government should take notice that parents, students and teachers, we’re not backing down on this. They need to come to the table, they need to be serious.”
Minister Lecce has been taking aim at teachers’ unions on his social media accounts and in interviews with local media.
“Haven’t Ontario families had enough?” Lecce wrote on Twitter yesterday when introducing a video that detailed education unions strike action over the past 30 years.
“Parents are frustrated and these one-day strikes are having real impacts, human impacts. I value their work, however, if we’re going to put more money in the system, I insist it goes toward students, not toward compensation for people who are, objectively, well paid,” Lecce said today.
Compensation has been a fundamental issue with the education unions, Lecce insists. The rookie education minister last week also announced temporary financial support for parents during school strikes.
In a joint statement issued by the ETFO, Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, and Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, the unions said education workers and teachers are asking for the following:
- Cancellation of the cuts and restoration of staffing levels and class size averages to 2018–19 levels;
- A hold on introducing mandatory e-learning until a study can be conducted with public participation;
- A commitment at the bargaining table to keeping the current model for kindergarten, which includes a teacher and early childhood educator, intact and;
- A cost-of-living increase to keep up with rising food, energy, and housing prices.