Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Monday committed to keeping Ontario's two million students in class for in-person learning this school year, as the province continues to face uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It is so consequential to children's mental and physical health," Lecce said at a news conference in Ajax, where he announced his ministry's "plan to catch up" for students who fell behind during pandemic-related school closures.
You can read the full plan published by the province at the bottom of this story.
Ontario students were, cumulatively, out of in-person classes longer than children and youth in any other jurisdiction in North America after the pandemic began in March 2020.
Lecce's commitment comes amid a backdrop of ongoing negotiations with the province's education unions whose contracts are set to expire at the end of August.
He repeatedly said the government intends to reach a "voluntary" deal with the unions in response to media questions about whether it would consider legislating teachers as essential workers, which would remove their right to strike.
But he said the focus will be on keeping students in the classroom and ensuring extracurricular activities resume in full. Teachers and education workers volunteer their time for extracurriculars. Lecce said that, in negotiations, his ministry will "insist" that the full range of those activities be available to students.
"We know that educators care deeply about their kids. They will do the right thing and ensure that those experiences are put back for kids. We have to insist as a government that all of those elements are restored," he said.
"I think parents have little tolerance for disruptions after two years of uncertainty and the government is standing up for them," Lecce added.
Other parts of the plan for students include:
Tutoring supports to fill gaps in learning.
Preparing students for the job market.
Providing more money to build schools.
Offering students mental health supports.
Most of the funding for the different elements of the plan were previously announced by the government in the spring budget.
Union notes extracurriculars offered voluntarily
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said she agrees with Lecce that
extracurriculars are important but noted that they are voluntary for teachers to offer.
She said some teachers are excited to offer extracurriculars, but some are still concerned about COVID-19 risks in schools, especially now that masks are no longer mandatory. Many are exhausted from the pandemic or have other challenges with offering extracurriculars, she added.
"They are voluntary and I haven't been told otherwise," Littlewood said of extracurriculars. "I expect our members will,
where they would like to have an extracurricular and offer one, they will, and some may choose not to."
Littlewood said the first bargaining meeting was positive and she doesn't see issues with reaching a deal right now.
In a statement, the Opposition NDP said Lecce's announcement showed "the Conservative government will not invest even one more dollar in Ontario's kids."
"Teachers and education workers are being laid off. Our kids' class sizes are far too big, and growing. Children still aren't getting anywhere near enough support for their mental health. And teachers and education workers are leaving," said NDP education critic Marit Stiles.
"What we needed to hear from Stephen Lecce today is that the government is increasing the education budget — not that they're holding the line."