Thousands in Ontario protest Ford government’s proposed changes to education
BY KATHRYN HRYCUSKO
Special to the VOICE
Students at E. L. Crossley Secondary School joined thousands of students across Ontario last Wednesday afternoon who walked out of class to protest the Ontario provincial government’s proposed changes to education. Wearing all black in solidarity with others protesting, and sporting signs that criticized the proposed increase to class sizes, implementation of e-learning, and more, dozens of students made their way to the edge of the school’s property. One of the students, armed with a megaphone, led the others in a rousing cheer of, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Doug Ford must go!”
This province-wide walkout, which was participated in by hundreds schools, both secondary and elementary, came in the wake of the provincial government’s, “Education that Works for You” plan. It was also a precursor to a rally that was held in Toronto on Saturday. Teacher associations, including OSSTF, were involved with planning the rally, which saw numerous teachers and students come together to protest the changes to the education plan.
The government, under Premier Doug Ford, issued a statement March 15 that outlined the intended changes that were to be put in place to improve education across Ontario. The plan includes increasing class sizes, hiring teachers based on merit rather than seniority, requiring students to take a minimum of four e-learning (online) classes, banning cell phones in classes, and introducing new math curricula, among other changes.
Also announced were the proposed changes to funding for autism. In an effort get 23,000 children off the wait list for funding, the provincial government is proposing to distribute funding directly to families.
Following these releases, information and news articles soon circulated that outlined potential problems with the proposed changes. In particular, the changes to class size, the addition of mandatory e-learning classes, and the changes to funding for autism have been criticized. There is worry that the changes to class size and required e-learning will result in a decrease in teaching positions and the possible layoff of current teachers. Other articles focus on the changes to autism funding and suggest that the changes could mean that families currently receiving funding will receive less than before, and, because the funding is not needs-based, some families may not receive what they need to support their child.
E. L. Crossley student and co-organizer of the school’s walkout, Tessa Piccolo said, “When the changes were initially announced there was definitely confusion because if you’re not following the issue closely, you’re never going to get like the full story.”
She and fellow organizer, Erica Carter, did their best to educate themselves on the topic.
“We automatically wanted to learn more about it,” said Piccolo. “We heard that there were changes and then we looked into what the changes were. At that point the conversation had already started as to the negative impacts of the changes that the government decided on or was planning on deciding on. So then I think it was just kind of through individual research and through the whole ‘We say no’ movement that blossomed on social media. That’s how we got educated about how they would negatively impact us.”
Although DSBN Communications Officer Brett Sweeney stated that the walkout was “not a board-sanctioned event,” he said, “[The DSBN does] have some concerns over what was announced, but we would need to know further details of the government’s roll out plans.”
Pelham’s school board Trustee, Nancy Beamer agreed.
“I think in the educational sector it’s a very stressful time with all the changes that are coming down and until everyone understands all the implications there’s always that feeling of uncertainty,” said Beamer.
“I can understand how people in the community are worried about class size and teacher layoffs and stuff like this.”
Former E. L. Crossley Principal and recently retired Student Achievement Leader for the DSBN, Ann Harrison, expressed her concerns.
“I think the changes are a concern for the quality of education that schools offer,” said Harrison. “In the DSBN we have excellent programs that support the diversity of students who cross our doorstep, and I would hate to see them dropped due to lack of funding support from the Ministry. I don’t sense the current Ministry of Education has as a basic philosophy for the success of all students.”
This worry has been repeated by students Tessa Piccolo and Erica Carter.
“They’re taking away people’s individual ability to function in a classroom,” said Piccolo. “Whether it be through the changing of the class sizes or through the addition of the mandatory e-learning. It’s not taking into consideration people’s individual needs. I think the overall message that they’re sending is that the individual student doesn’t matter.”
The two girls were not the only students to express concern over what these changes meant. In their search for information about the changes, they came across the Instagram page, “Students Say No,” a group composed of students from across Ontario who wanted to protest the changes. The group encouraged high schools to register to participate in the April 4 walkout, offering them a platform to sign up on. Once registered with the group, high schools received information packages that explained the goals of the walkout and their expectations for those participating, ensuring the same information and procedures for the walkout was disseminated to all participating schools.
Piccolo and Carter registered E.L. Crossley for the walkout, and, in turn, passed the information on to their peers.
“We have been posting [on Instagram] what we are protesting,” said Carter. “We have explained the changes and how they will negatively impact the students. We are trying our best to educate people. I do think a lot of students are genuinely passionate about this, especially after learning more about it. They research it themselves or they’ve heard about it through Tessa and I, as we’ve been taking a lead on that.”
In addition to participating in the walkout, E. L. Crossley students also signed a petition outlining their concerns with the intention of passing it onto Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff, who is also Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Education. By press time, Oosterhoff’s office had not responded to a request for comment.
As of last Wednesday morning, some 800 schools across the province had registered to participate, according to published reports, including several schools in Niagara.
The DSBN’s Sweeney said, “We do expect that there will be some participation from many of our high schools, possibly all of them.”
Both Sweeney, and DSBN Trustee Nancy Beamer said that students students would not be penalized for participating in the walkout beyond being marked absent for that period.
“This is not a board-sanctioned event, but in a general sense I would say that the DSBN absolutely supports student’s rights to have their voices heard,” said Sweeney. “What we are encouraging, though, is that any student who is choosing to participate in this walkout do so respectfully and safely.”
Crossley students also passed around a petition that they intend to present to MPP Oosterhoff, reflecting their position on the new education changes.
For many of these students, the increased class sizes, mandatory online classes, and cuts to autism funding were of the most concern, and, for many, a cause of anger.
Grade 11 student Andrew Rachar listed these issues among his reasons for protesting, saying that he felt that protesting “was the only right thing I could do.”
Although the protesters consisted of students from every grade, the majority were from Grade 12.
Nigel Casson, a Grade 12 who held a sign saying, “Things Doug Ford knows about education,” followed by a blank list, said that he intends to return for another year of school, Grade 12B, and therefore is protesting because these changes will affect him.
Other students, who were not intending to return to high school next year, still felt it was important to participate in the protest.
“Even though we’re Grade 12 and were not going back to school next year, it still affects all our students,” said Erica Carter. “It affects our teachers, and it even affects seniors even though we’re leaving, because of OSAP cuts. I enjoyed high school and I know a lot of my friends and other students enjoy going to high school, but honestly it’s just going to ruin it with increasing class sizes and more. It’s a lot of cuts that are happening and they aren’t things that I would want to be going through. So I just think it’s very important for everyone else to enjoy education.”
Tessa Piccolo said that the proposed changes would affect generations.
“We have to realize that the decisions that are made in our government now will have huge impacts in the years to come,” she said. “I think that we really do have to accept responsibility and we can’t just let it go.”
Others were looking out for family or friends. Grade 12 student Emma Leavens was protesting because she knew that these changes would “deeply affect” her younger sister, who will soon enter high school.
While many cited autism funding, class size, and mandatory e-learning as their reasons for protesting, an overwhelming number of students had also come out in support of their teachers, whose jobs they felt were threatened by the changes in education.
Grade 11 student Kyle Glenney said that in addition to having many family and friends who were teachers, he has thought about being a teacher one day. For him, protesting was not simply a matter of looking out for his own immediate interests, but a matter of looking out for his future, and the well-being of others.
Jenna Veerman, a Grade 12 student, said that “teachers have done so much for me personally,” and that it was only fair that she protest on behalf of them.
Despite students’ worry about the jobs of their teachers, Nancy Beamer said of the DSBN, “We do not think that we are going to have any mass layoffs or anything like this. I think our teachers are safe at this point. Our projection is for ninety teachers over the next four years and that should be taken care of by attrition and retirement.”
Despite this, Beamer also offered words in support of the Crossley students’ right to have their opinion heard, saying, “In our schools we do not just teach facts. We like to think we are teaching students to become independent thinkers, to develop their own moral standards and to stick up for what they think is right. These students will one day be the leaders of our country.”
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