However, to go from the current average of 22, up to the planned 28, “specialized courses with lower enrolment or smaller classes with students who have high needs that have a 10- to 20-student class size will mean that other courses have very high class sizes of 36 to 46 students,” the letter says.
The government announced last month that class sizes for teens will increase from the current sizes, as teachers who leave or retire aren’t replaced.
But because those are averages, actual class sizes will end up much higher — and 36 to 46, while extreme, is “not out of the realm of possibility,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association.
“The issue with the tech courses is that the province is pushing STEM and skilled trades, but yet they are saying class sizes have to be higher — but we can’t offer our skilled trades at those class sizes, it’s too dangerous,” she told the Star.
Thompson was grilled on board concerns in the legislature by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who called the Progressive Conservative changes “bad education policy,” and noted Halton may have to scrap classes with low enrolment, even if they are popular among teens.
“When it comes to school boards across the province, we want to work with our education partners,” Thompson replied, adding the ministry is consulting until the end of May.
Thompson also said that “even with the changes we announced, we’re looking at in our plan, we’re still one of the lowest class sizes across Canada.”
The minister has said no teachers will be laid off as a result of the larger class sizes, and boards will be given transitional funding over the next four years to manage attrition.
Premier Doug Ford has also promised that the government will allocate more money in the budget for education in the coming school year than is currently being spent.
The government is keeping class sizes the same in the primary years, but increasing them by an average of one student from Grades 4 to 8.
In total, it has estimated a total loss of almost 3,500 elementary and secondary teaching positions, though unions and advocacy groups have calculated as many as 10,000 could be phased out.
“If school boards are going to protect any smaller programs, as they must for special needs students, for example, some classes will absolutely grow to unmanageable sizes, such as the Halton board has indicated,” said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.
“The government is creating an environment where some students simply will not get the individual attention and supports they need to succeed.”
Meanwhile, the Toronto District School Board issued a report late Wednesday with preliminary budget figures that show a $28.7 million reduction in funding from the provincial government for this fall, on top of an existing shortfall of $25.7 million.
That’s $54.4 million in cuts it will need to find for the next school year.
The TDSB notes it has contractual obligations to keep intermediate elementary classes at an average of 23.24 students per teacher, not the 24.5 the government wants — and says it is not the only board facing this issue. That alone adds $9.6 million to the board’s budget woes.
“We continue to work with (the education ministry) to help them understand this situation and to advocate for funding to deal with the shortfall, since the government also expects us to follow our collective agreements,” the report states.
The TDSB also mentions the “other significant and far-reaching challenges” of reducing high school teaching staff, including “growing class sizes,” and “negative impacts on students” — and calls its estimated loss of 800 educators “an order of magnitude that is unprecedented.”
Other boards have already written to the province with their concerns over the changes, including recent correspondence from the Durham District School Board that says course option will “diminish drastically — especially in the area of the arts, trades and specialty subjects.”
Grebenc said in Halton she’s “heard a lot of concerns from families … definitely it’s the class size, and the four (mandatory) online courses” for teens.
“My big point is the fact — where is the evidence-based research that supports these changes,” asked Grebenc, who is also an instructor at McMaster University.
While science and math are important, so are courses like the arts — which are under threat, she added. And with fewer teachers, fewer extracurricular activities will also be a reality, she warned.
“I have a science degree, an honours bachelor of science, but what helped me through high school — I was in choir, in band and on the stage in our drama productions every year … that kept me well.”
The arts also lead to jobs, just as science and math do, she said.
“I teach coding at McMaster,” she added. “I know the value of coding — but coding is not all about math, either. It’s problem solving” and other skills.
Ontario school boards have been urging the ministry to put its education revamp on hold, and hold proper consultations with them and other stakeholders.
Durham Chair Michael Barrett also wrote to the minister, saying the changes will have a “significant negative impact” on students.
“Our smaller, rural and inner-city schools are significantly impacted (eg. the physics or math teacher retires and you cannot replace them),” he wrote to Thompson on behalf of his board.
“With limited course options, such as the trades, this puts students with special needs who often take these courses at risk of not obtaining enough credits for graduation.”
Abraham said “at some point, boards will just have to drop smaller classes” to avoid mega-sized ones.
But a class of 36 students or more “is not outside the realm of possibility, if you take it as far as you need to take it to support those small classes.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy