Teachers' unions and Education Minister Stephen Lecce seem to be setting aside any differences in an effort to tackle distance learning for students facing school closures as COVID-19 continues to spread across the province. This includes the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), whose president spoke with the minister directly this week for the first time in more than eight months.
Ministry of Education officials and unions have also established a working group to discuss how to keep students learning during the expected weeks, if not months, of school closures.
While the Progressive Conservative government planned to keep schools closed for two weeks, Premier Doug Ford said earlier this week that the April 6 re-opening date is "not realistic." On March 20, Lecce unveiled a series of online resources for families to use during the two weeks, saying that if schools remained closed for a longer period, the government would roll out a second phase. It's unclear at this time what that might look like, but Ford said on Friday that Lecce would be making an announcement in the next few days.
"This week, I initiated conversations with each of the teacher union presidents to discuss how we can support and educate students during this unprecedented time," Lecce said in a statement to QP Briefing. "We discussed a variety of critical topics, but the crux of each conversation centered on our overriding priority to maintain student and staff safety and ensure our kids continue learning from the safety of their home."
He said they also discussed "how to minimize student learning loss, strengthen professional development of educators to better support students online and outside the classroom, and efforts to ensure a continuum of professional care on issues such as mental health and special education needs."
"As we move beyond the two-week closure period, I look forward to cooperation from our union partners in continuing the education of Ontario’s students," Lecce said.
OSSTF President Harvey Bischof said his union sent a letter to Lecce and the school boards' association two weeks ago indicating they are "prepared to work collaboratively in students’ best interest."
"It was a sincere offer of co-operation and collaboration and I’m pleased that it’s been taken up at this point," he said.
Bischof said both he and Lecce were receptive to what the other had to say during their conversation on Wednesday. The two previously spoke last July, soon after Lecce was appointed education minister.
"We have had obviously significant disagreements but that was not at all the focus of our discussions, which are at this time what can we do in the midst of a crisis to support students and that was entirely the focus of the discussion," said Bischof.
OSSTF is one of two teachers' unions — the other is the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) — that has not yet reached a deal with the province on new contracts for its members. The last time OSSTF, the school boards' association and the province met for official talks was in December; the parties did have a few days of exploratory talks at the beginning of March, but they did not lead to further discussions.
Following Lecce's recent announcement about online tools available to students, Bischof said his union was not consulted on the resources being provided, but urged the government to bring unions into the conversation.
After their discussion this week, Bischof said he and Lecce agreed they would "make best efforts to work collaboratively to provide the best continuity of learning that we can for students."
Bischof said one of the things he stressed was that they need to be ready to address any "gaps" once students return to their classrooms, whenever that might be.
"There will be a spectrum of kids’ abilities to keep up with some sort of distance learning, whether that’s online, whether that’s through mailed-out packages," said Bischof. "Some students will be better and some less able to cope with that outside-of-the-classroom setting."
"I simply believe that we need to be prepared and we need to be thinking in advance about how do we best serve students across a spectrum of engagement with whatever continuity of learning we can provide during the closure," he said.
Bischof said another thing he discussed with Lecce is that they can't "expect perfection" during these circumstances.
"Different students and different educators will have different levels of ability to engage with this and we have to accept that while doing the best we can, we will not be able to provide a perfect solution," he said. "There was clear understanding that this is challenging because of the different needs of students, that measures will be put in place to do our best to address those."
Meanwhile, Bischof said some OSSTF staff members and other unions have been in contact with ministry officials as part of a working group to explore the "continuity of learning."
"I think that group will be very valuable in terms of working together collaboratively," Bischof said, adding that they've met at least once and have agreed to continue discussions.
Other union leaders offered similar messages of collaboration during their conversations with Lecce.
Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) President Liz Stuart, who spoke with the minister on Wednesday, said she "expressed Catholic teachers’ desire to play a positive role in managing these extraordinary circumstances, and reiterated the need for proper consultation in developing education policy moving forward." And Remi Sabourin, president of the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), told Lecce the union is "on board to work and collaborate with government, other education unions and school boards to ensure that the safety and well-being of students and teachers are prioritized during this extraordinary time."
AEFO negotiations continue
The French-language teachers' union, the government and school boards' associations have been in talks every day this week, AEFO confirmed, totalling 34 days of bargaining. The discussions are taking place via teleconference.
This comes after the province and OECTA reached a tentative agreement two weeks ago, while another with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario was announced one week ago.
Lecce said on March 21 that the mediator hadn't called OSSTF and the other parties back to the table, but that he thought this could happen "in the coming days."
Bischof said Thursday evening that they hadn't yet been called.
"Honestly I think people have a lot of other considerations right now that are more pressing and one of them is we have begun working with the ministry and other unions and I have been in conversation with the minister about what kind of continuity of learning we can provide during the time of closure and how we can remediate once we’re back in face-to-face settings, so I think that’s probably our number one priority right now," he said.
Photo Credit: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star