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May. 20, 2022 | Friday
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St. Michael Catholic elementary teachers join one-day walkout



Teachers from St. Michael Catholic Elementary School in Virgil walked off the job Tuesday morning, protesting government cuts to education. 

The one-day strike was part of rotating job actions by teachers at Catholic schools in Niagara and elsewhere in Ontario. Public elementary school teachers across Niagara plan their own walkout Thursday.

St. Davids resident Maria Rocca Martin, who is a supply teacher at high schools across Niagara, participated in four school strikes during 36 years of teaching, said there is more support for teachers this time around than in previous years.

“I think the public is very aware of the cuts the government is looking at making to education because parents today are more educated than they’ve ever been before. They’re more involved,” said Martin.  “It’s very heartening to see that support.”

Martin, a member of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, joined about 22 teachers on the picket line.

Across the province, teachers represented by different education unions also staged walkouts Tuesday to fight the government’s changes to education.

Some of their concerns include increased average class sizes, elimination of the Local Priorities Fund and mandatory e-learning. Teachers also are calling for more support for special needs students and a committment to the full-day kindergarten program.

“It’s unfortunate that this has to happen but it’s the only way that (the government) is going to understand these issues are very dear to our heart,” said Martin.

Wearing heavy winter parkas to stay warm in the -8C temperatures, some NOTL strikers walked around the roundabout leading into Virgil, while others stood along the roadside, waving signs as motorists drove by.

One teacher said a man gave them a thumbs down and another driver showed a “strange signal with his finger,” but the vast majority of passing motorists were honking, giving thumbs up or rolling down windows and waving in support of the strikers, who waved back and shouted “thank you” in response.

“It’s a very short-sighted move on the government’s part,” Martin said, noting that many students aren’t independent enough to take online courses and that e-learning doesn’t take into account students’ mental health or their individual learning styles.

“So many of their moves right now are not in the best interests of the students.”

Supply teacher Erica Brunato said smaller class sizes allow teachers to have a more direct contact with students, while online courses may not be suitable for students who don’t have enough discipline to regulate themselves.

“It’s great to see support from not only the parents, but the students, so that they understand that we’re out here fighting for them,” she said. “We just want them to know we’re doing this for their sake.”

Three NOTL parents, Joe Pillitteri, Carrie Bowman and Eileen Pillitteri, as well as F45 fitness studio co-owner Jack Addams Williams stopped by to show their support for the strikers.

Pillitteri, a local comedian and co-owner of Lakeview Vineyard Equipment, brought doughnuts and Timbits with him. He exchanged hugs with a couple of teachers and also took a selfie with them. As a parent whose four children have attended St. Michael (one is still there), Pillitteri said he wanted to show he supports the teachers.

“It’s important that we compensate our teachers well and that we respect the need for appropriate class sizes and having working conditions that are safe for both teachers and students,” he told The Lake Report.

The issue is about more than just money, he said. “It’s about making sure they are thinking about the next 20 years, not today.”

To ease the chill of Tuesday morning’s chilly weather, parent Bowman arrived with some white hot chocolate. She said her children are in Grades 6 and 8 at St. Michael and she wanted to support the teachers as well.

“People focus more on what the teachers are asking for, what their salaries are, things like that — but what they don’t realize is teachers come in and they deal with behaviours in the classroom. They deal with the class size,” Bowman said.

“They’re doing this job because they want to do this job. They want our kids to succeed and people are not realizing all of these factors are making it harder for them to do their jobs and harder for our kids to suceed.”

Eileen Pillitteri was there to drop off some muffins and show support to the teachers as her children are in Grade 4, 6 and 7, she said.

“These cuts will be detrimental to the children and to the staff, it’s not right,” Pillitteri said.

Williams, co-owner of F45 studio, said he is a primary school teacher in Australia and is fully supportive of the teachers.

“Solidarity is really important to teachers and communities need to get behind what they’re doing,” he said. “It starts with an education.”

This is the first time Catholic teachers across Ontario have announced a full withdrawal of services since 1997.

The education changes were introduced by former Education Minister Lisa Thompson in March 2019.

The province’s plan was to increase average classes in Grades 4 to 8 to 24.5 students from 23.84 and high schools to 28 from 22. Another proposed change was to make high school students take one mandatory online course each year.

Last fall, the new Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province would reduce the average high school class size to 25 from 28, and only require two online courses instead of four in total.

However, the Catholic association, which has 75 local bargaining units, is asking the provincial government to reverse the changes.

“Students will also have fewer supports and programs, a large number of teaching positions will be lost, and course options will be significantly reduced for students,” Marie Balanowski, a Niagara Elementary bargaining unit president, said in an email response to The Lake Report.

“The government doesn’t appear to have any plans to improve student learning in any way. We cannot accept a contract that would be detrimental to the learning conditions in our schools.”

The Catholic association is one of the four education unions in Ontario that has taken job actions to protest changes to the public education system.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario started rotating one-day, provincewide strikes on Jan. 20, while the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has been holding one-day pickets since early December.

The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens also started a work-to-rule job action last week. The French school board teachers are doing the bare minimum of what is required of them by their contract. They may also refuse to work overtime, put their comments on report cards or attend field trips.

In Niagara, all elementary public schools under the District School Board of Niagara will be closed for one day on Thursday, Jan. 23. The walkout will not affect secondary schools.

The provincial government has offered up to $65 to parents to help cover child care expenses during strike days.

“We fully recognize the negative impacts teacher union escalation is having on families,” Lecce said in a statement Tuesday.

“It is why we are calling on these union leaders to end these strikes, given the adverse effects on students and financial hardship on parents. While this union-led escalation happens far too often, we are committed to negotiating deals that keep students in class, while providing financial support for families for child care needs.”