By Louise Brown
More than 11 years after a provincial commission offered a blueprint for preventing extracurriculars from becoming a political football ever again — advice that was not followed — some 1.3 million Ontario students face the prospect of losing after-school programs for up to two more years.
It’s all a needless déjà-vu, claims commission member Cathy Cove.
Had the Ontario government acted on even some of the 2001 report’s 16 proposals — starting with an agreement on exactly what is extra, and then reward teachers who coach with perhaps a lighter workload — public schools might not be facing confusion in January over what’s on or off when it comes to field trips, fundraising, homework help or concerts, said the Goderich writer who represented parents on the Advisory Group on the Provision of Co-instructional Activities.
“It seems the ball was dropped, the recommendations were forgotten and now it’s happening all over again,” said Cove. “I feel really sad we’re in this position again; it’s a tragedy.”
High school students walked out of class en masse from dozens of schools across the province last week to protest the loss of extracurricular activities they are suffering as part of teachers’ anger over Bill 115.
Meanwhile, elementary teachers began staging rotating one-day strikes over the contentious law, which curbs bargaining rights, cuts benefits and freezes wages. London elementary teachers are set to walkout on Thursday (Dec 20) resulting in the closure of all Thames Valley District School Board elementary schools.
In January 2001, Premier Mike Harris named a five-person committee to study the political hot potato of after-school activities, since three-quarters of high school teachers that year had quit coaching to protest a sweeping education law that extended teaching hours.
The group’s 50-page report, submitted in April 2001, called on Queen’s Park to sit down with teachers’ unions and school boards to hammer out a new definition of which teacher duties truly are voluntary.
That never was done and the definition remains unclear, so no one is quite sure which activities teachers will choose to keep boycotting in January — reference letters? extended comments on report cards? drama productions? — even after the province imposes new contracts on unions and school boards, as expected in the new year.
The report did not recommend making extracurricular activities a mandatory part of a teacher’s job, a move Progressive Conservative MPP and education critic Lisa MacLeod said last week her party is considering.
But Ken Arnott, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council, said “a lot of this falls into a grey zone. For example, teachers do have to hold interviews with parents to report on achievement, but not necessarily in the evening. And taking students on a field trip is a teacher’s choice.”
Because of the confusion, Arnott said it’s time to dust off the report’s recommendation.
“This might be the time for all three parties — government, school boards and teachers — to start discussions on what is voluntary.”
Education Minister Laurel Broten said losing extracurricular activities “is not in the best interests of students” and called on teachers to return to their regular duties.
As to the recommendations from the report commissioned by the Tories, she said “We will not be taking any lessons from the PCs when it comes to education. Their record of firing teachers, cutting education funding, and creating persistent unrest in schools is not the approach we will take.”
The recommendations bore a price tag of about $38.5 million to be paid for by raising class size. Although the report did not propose paying teachers to coach, as happens in parts of the United States, it did suggest teachers who coach or run clubs might teach for half a period less a week.
The report also proposed boards hire lunchroom supervisors to free up teachers for midday activities and that the ministry provide special funding for supply teachers to cover staff when they leave school for extracurriculars.
The report also called on unions not to pressure teachers who choose to do extras during labour strife.
“I don’t think the government or the unions really liked what was in there and then the government backed down on the heavier workload so teachers went back to extracurriculars and the larger problem never got addressed,” said commission member Colin Hood, a former physical education teacher and retired executive director of the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations.
“But clearly something’s got to happen, because it’s frightening to think Ontario students could go for another 18 months without all the benefits extracurriculars offer.”
Today, teachers at all Ontario English-language public schools have stopped doing extras as part of a protest against Bill 115.
Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said anything that is not spelled out in the Education Act or a part of a collective agreement is deemed extracurricular, and that some agreements “do say that extracurriculars are voluntary; they are very clear that’s the case.”
For school sports alone, there are 16,000 to 18,000 teacher coaches across the province “and when you factor drama, band, choir and a bunch of other clubs into that” there are thousands more taking part.
- Torstar News Service