It’s early days in the months-long process of meeting somewhere in the middle, and Karen Brown laughs as she uses the phrase “cautiously optimistic” to describe her expectations.
The president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has just finished an initial bargaining session with the education ministry and school board representatives, the beginning of a process that is planned out for September and October.
It’s three years on from a tense showdown between the province’s four main teachers’ unions and the Ford government that was sidelined by the pandemic, and it is not clear that talks are starting any closer this time around.
“What we’ve seen is that public education is not a priority, what we’re seeing is a push from this government to move towards privatization, a push towards online learning and a pop up of online providers,” said Brown, “And that’s really a concern.”
Brown said smaller class sizes and protection of the dual teacher/early childhood educator model for the province’s kindergarten will be key priorities for the more than a dozen ETFO negotiators.
Students in Ontario stayed away from shuttered schools for longer than in any other province in the first years of COVID-19, and the government has required all boards to maintain a fully online learning option for this coming school year, while mandatory online classes for high school students were a point of contention in prior talks.
The government said this month it would provide parents with cash they could spend on tutoring, money Brown said would be better directed at the public system.
“That sort of funding should be within the school, providing the resources and the supports that every student can get during the school day, not just those who can afford” to make use of the offer, she said.
The elementary school union represents mostly permanent full-time teachers but also occasional teachers, designated early childhood educators, education support personnel, and professional support personnel, and Brown said they are feeling the strain.
“Our members, like many front-line workers, are taxed, they are giving a lot,” she said. “And we're seeing that, you know, members are leaving within their first five years; they're highly skilled, highly trained, and they're looking for less stressful opportunities.”
“Everyone's tired, we've been through a pandemic, our members are looking forward to creating some semblance of normal, to returning to that,” said Brown, who was first vice-president of ETFO since 2015 before becoming president last year.
ETFO is one of the province’s four main teachers’ unions, with others that represent secondary school teachers, Catholic school teachers and French-language school teachers also engaged with the province and its school boards.
In a move that could offer hints at what the government may offer teachers in this round of bargaining, it countered the union representing its educational assistants, school library workers, custodians and other school staff with a proposed pay raise of no more than two per cent a year, far below what CUPE sought to deal with inflation and make up for wage depreciation over time.
Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer