Ontario students are opposed to bigger class sizes and mandatory online credits because such changes will harm achievement, says the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, which is now calling on the Ford government to nix plans for both.
The group, which advocates for the province’s 2 million students and consults extensively with them on an ongoing basis, says in a report to be released Monday that it “strongly recommends that the provincial government reverse its class size increases, and maintain within the (education grants) the 2018-19 class size average of 22 pupils in Grades 9-12.”
And while advocating for a more modern, 21st-century learning, students don’t want one that includes mandatory e-learning, the report says, advising the government to drop plans for four online credits in order to graduate “due to the severe equity issues, incomparable experiences students have with in-person classes and lack of research” that proves it is beneficial for teens.
The “vision document,” which is being released at the start of Education Week, also calls for better funding of schools in Northern Ontario — which have said they will be particularly hard-hit by bigger classes — safer school buses, “maximum commute times” for students, and more nonrepayable grants for teens from middle- and low-income homes so they can attend post-secondary.
The Ontario government has introduced a number of reforms that will improve and modernize the education system and put student achievement first, Education Minister Lisa Thompson has said.
“Our concern right now is how are these things going to negatively impact students?” said president Amal Qayum, a student at Westlane Secondary in Niagara Falls.
“We are hearing from students, we are hearing through student trustees, that school boards across the province are giving layoff notices to teachers and the courses they are seeing impacted the most right now are specialized classes.
“Although classes like math and English are important, the others are where students learn transferable life skills — and are often the courses students show up to school for.”
The province is phasing out 3,500 teaching positions over the next four years as it boosts class sizes from Grades 4 to 8 by an average of one student, and by an average of six students in high school, going from 22 to 28.
The mandatory elearning classes, for which details are still being worked out, will have an average of 35 students.
Many estimates peg the teacher losses much higher — up to 10,000 — but the government has pledged $1.6 billion for an “attrition fund” for school boards to make sure no one is laid off if retirements and resignations aren’t enough.
However, the move has already caused chaos in schools, given high school students have already chosen their courses for next year. With the loss of teachers, schools must now make adjustments.
One less teacher means six fewer courses or sections, so in many cases, teens must now go back to square one and choose their credits for the fall again from amongst fewer choices. At least one teacher took to social media last week to show long, early morning lineups of frustrated students waiting outside the guidance office.
Some parent councils, like the one at Mayfield Secondary in Caledon, shared a document on social media, noting the Peel board has issued 193 potential layoff notices for this fall to high school teachers.
Seven teachers are leaving Mayfield, it notes. Staffing will drop from 113 to 106, resulting in 42 courses or sections “that will not be available for our students next year.”
“Some courses were cancelled, while others will continue to run in the 2019-20 school year, but with a reduced number of sections available to students, and with significantly larger class sizes. This was done to preserve pathways for students to enable them to accumulate enough credits to graduate.”
It then lists all the courses cancelled or reduced. Those cancelled include, the well-regarded jazz choir, computer science (college level, Grades 11 and 12), Grade 12 math (college level) and Grade 12 physics (college level) and some auto shop. Those reduced include Grade 12 university-level courses such as international law, computer science, advanced functions, biology, chemistry, earth and space science and physics.
“In testimonials, one student said that they were already in a math class that had upwards of 35 students” and had a lot of difficulty because of a lack of time for one-on-one help from the teacher, Qayum said. That student eventually dropped to the more hands-on applied math, which is not accepted by universities.
“It’s stories like that that we are worried about with larger classes — larger classes mean less one-on-one time” that students need, she added.
Qayum also said the association’s survey of 8,000 of students last year showed that three-quarters prefer the classroom experience to online learning.
Once implemented, Ontario would be the only jurisdiction known to mandate four online courses; a handful of U.S. states require one for graduation, or strongly encourage it.
Because the province funds based on averages, classes can get much bigger to offset smaller, specialized ones. The Halton public board has warned of classes as large as 46 students.
Other boards have warned of the loss of tech and specialized courses.
“When we lost specialized courses, we are losing student engagement,” said Qayum. And “technology and trades courses — things like construction, refrigeration — hands-on tech courses where there’s a huge job market” might be gone, she added.
“We need more people working in those fields, but those course are very expensive to run, you have specialized teachers and you can’t have 35 kids in an auto class. It’s dangerous to have upwards of 15.”
Thompson has said students need to build resiliency, and need more group work opportunities. She’s also said that larger classes prepare teens for the realities of post-secondary studies, where sections can have hundreds of students.
That’s not something Qayum agrees with.
“High school and public education is meant to provide you the framework for post-secondary,” she said. “You can’t do that in larger classes … high school students needs the support for building the skill set that needs to be built, beforehand.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy