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Dec. 14, 2019 | Saturday
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Bigger classes mean teacher job cuts, Catholic board chair says
Frank Fera, chair of Niagara Catholic District School Board, said increasing class sizes was "terrible." (Niagara Catholic District School Board)

The chair of the Niagara Catholic School Board expects provincial plans to increase average class sizes will mean teacher layoffs, but the vice-chair of the public board is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Frank Fera, chair of the Catholic board and a trustee for Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, said the class size increase might affect the board’s budget.

“I would think that there will be layoffs because of lack of funds that are coming in from the ministry,” he said. “We don’t know exactly how much short our board is going to be and what cuts have to be made. We’ll know that soon, when we start the budget process. We don’t know exactly how much the ministry is cutting us back.”

The province’s plan to increase average classes in Grade 4 to 8 by one student and high schools to 28 from 22, is a “terrible” idea, Fera said.

“More students you have in classrooms, more difficult it becomes for the teacher to be able to teach effectively and give the students one-on-one instruction which is required,” said Fera. “Also, the special needs children are going to be affected tremendously by it.”

The vice-chair of the District School Board of Niagara, Dave Schaubel, said the board is concerned about the increase in class sizes in secondary schools but he was cautious to say how it would affect everyone until the board sees the details of the government’s plan.

“We’re kind of ahead of the game if we’re going to say, ‘Well, push the panic button here, we’re going to lose teachers.’ Because our enrolment is going up,” he said. “We see no reason to believe it’s not going to continue that trend.”

Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced changes to the provincial education system on March 15 and said the new plans will be phased in over the next four years.

Besides bigger classes, the changes include banning cellphones in classrooms, instituting a “back-to-the-basics” math curriculum and making every high school student take one mandatory online course each year.

According to the District School Board of Niagara, using mobile devices are allowed where “they are deemed not to interfere with their personal learning or the learning of others.” However, cellphones are prohibited in private areas such as locker rooms or washrooms.

The Niagara Catholic School Board policy states cellphones aren’t allowed for use in classrooms unless school staff approves the use for instructional or co-instructional purposes.

Fera said he would “embrace” the concept of students using cellphones in high school as they’re more mature than elementary and middle school students.

“(At the elementary level), as long as they’re used on assignments that are curriculum-based, I would embrace them also. But with caution and supervision. They’re not to be utilized as a toy,” Fera told The Lake Report.

Amal Qayum, a Grade 12 student at Westlane Secondary School in Niagara Falls and president of Ontario’s Student Trustee Association, said the support provided in a smaller class is “much more beneficial” than what students receive in a larger class.

“It’s just hard for teachers to support so many students, especially at a secondary level, with everyone’s learning skills and learning needs (being) so diverse already,” she said.

Qayum said she also thinks the government should not be mandating four online courses.

“E-learning courses are difficult in a sense that you’re not face-to-face with a teacher,” she said.

As for the math curriculum, Qayum said there should be a “balance of both” methods where students can learn basic math as well as critical thinking and data analysis skills.

Three Laura Secord Secondary School students had strong opinions on some of the proposed changes.

“The cellphone ban and larger class sizes are largely non-detrimental and cellphones are already supposed to be banned,” said Sarah Baker, a Grade 11 student.

“Mandatory online courses will hinder more students than it helps others. Having the option to take online courses is very helpful for most students, but having them mandated is not the best course of action that the government could take,” she said in an email to The Lake Report.

“I feel that there should not be mandatory online classes. That being said, having a greater variety and accessibility to these e-learning courses will greatly help students. Having them mandated will not.”

Bethany Poltl, another Grade 11 student and chair of Lord Mayor’s youth advisory council in NOTL, said many of her peers feel banning cellphones in classrooms isn’t a big deal for them, but larger class sizes “are something we would have to see in action.”

“With the motivated students in the room and the strong teacher facilitating our course, we were all successful,” she said in an email. “I think that the larger class size success will depend on what the subject is, how motivated the students are to learn and how the teacher delivers the course.”

Poltl also mentioned taking online courses in the summer and doing online work through web portals like D2L.

“I think having students become familiar with how to learn digitally and use the e-learning environment effectively will prepare them for university and the real world,” she said.

Another Grade 11 student, Sophia Galbraith, said banning cellphones was “pointless” as students can use computers in school and “social interactions online cannot be prevented.”

“Larger class sizes can lead to students not receiving the attention and help from teachers they need, as well as an increase in the ability of being distracted by their fellow peers,” she said via email.

“Having online classes as a mandatory requirement is unfair to those who are unable to learn in that fashion and rely on hands-on learning. It is uncertain that everyone has access to this way of learning and that it will enhance or increase student success rate,” she added.

For Joy Janzen, a member of the parent council and a NOTL representative on the public board’s parent involvement committee, the government announcements take attention away from other issues.

“(The cellphone ban) implies that teachers don’t know how to manage their classrooms and need legislation to institute civility with their students,” said Janzen in an email.

“I agree that many young people need instruction on phone etiquette, but the idea of legislation on this topic is ridiculous.”

Bringing back old math curriculum is another “waste of time,” said Janzen pointing out how the math scores for public board schools in the region have increased in the last two years.

In Grade 3, 72 per cent of Crossroads students and 76 per cent of the public board students exceeded the provincial standard of 61 per cent, according to the EQAO 2017-18 school report.

In Grade 6, 58 per cent of Crossroads students and 61 per cent of the board students have met the provincial standard of 49 per cent, the report says.

Janzen attributed the increase in math scores to a focus on math instruction among teachers and an increased emphasis on STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)

“These were tangible initiatives that created real results,” she said.

The increased class sizes, however, is a real concern, said Janzen, as it “is also a tool used to justify decreased school funding and bring about school closures.”

Lianne Lambert, a mother of three Crossroads students, said she agrees with the cellphone ban to some extent although the decision has to be made by teachers and the school board. She also said while some teachers are divided about the new math curriculum, some parents have to take time to relearn math to help their children with homework.

“It kind of feels like Doug Ford is just trying to earn some points with parents that are frustrated,” she said in an interview. “Maybe he’s trying to get parents on his side by doing these small measurements. It’s hard to know.”

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