Ontario's high-school students will be going without sports teams, clubs, school dances and fundraisers as teachers ramp up job action next week in their fight with the provincial government.
The teachers' action – which until now has been restricted to administrative duties and supervision outside classrooms – will affect thousands of students who count on extracurricular activities to earn scholarships and impress university recruiters.
Union leaders, meeting Monday, did not endorse a plan to join elementary-school teachers in walkouts scheduled for the last two weeks before the Christmas holidays, despite pressure from some members. But Education Minister Laurel Broten accused union leaders of undermining the local bargaining process and focusing exclusively on strike action – and blamed them for putting an entire academic year in jeopardy.
At a minimum, many students were bracing for a long school year without their favourite outside-the-classroom activities. Although the government has the power to stop job action, and will likely do so after the bargaining deadline of Dec. 31, it cannot force teachers to resume voluntary activities like clubs and coaching.
"This affects all of us, students are going to react [by likely staging their own protests]," said Hirad Zafari, a Grade 12 student at Don Mills Collegiate in Toronto and a student trustee. "Sports are the reason a lot of kids come to school."
Houman Tahavori, a Grade 12 student at Toronto's Langstaff Secondary School, founded an English club and is involved in a handful of other clubs. He had hoped to use reference letters from teachers in his supplementary university application, but is unsure that will happen now that his last year of high school has been thrown into uncertainty.
"I am nervous, because I worked really hard to be in these clubs," he said. "I can't really judge teachers. This is, after all, their extracurriculars. But even if teachers don't participate, they should still allow students to continue running those clubs."
The withdrawal of services comes as teachers express their anger with legislation – Bill 115 – that dictates the terms of their contracts and restricts their ability to strike. Along with not participating in extracurriculars, high-school teachers will arrive at school just 15 minutes before the bell rings and leave immediately after classes finish.
"The dial has been turned up a notch," Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, told reporters Monday. "Our members are not prepared to stand by."
The minority Liberal government also intensified the war of words. "The actions by the teacher union leadership show clearly that this was never about bargaining locally and finding solutions," Ms. Broten told reporters. "This has been, and will continue to be, about the refusal of our union leadership, not our teachers, to accept a real pay freeze. It's the union leaders, not our teachers, who refuse to accept our fiscal realities."
Ms. Broten appealed to union leaders to "climb down from the precipice" and continue with local bargaining. The place to air their grievances over Bill 115 is in the courts, not the classroom, she said. "If you want a fight instead of a fix then take your fight to the courts, but keep the kids out of it," Ms. Broten said. The unions have launched a court challenge of the legislation.
Ms. Broten has threatened to block teachers from walking off the job, but she refused on Monday to say how quickly the government would respond.
Elementary-school teachers plan to start one-day walkouts next week that are expected to hit different boards on different days. If the province moves to stop teachers from holding these one-day walkouts, they will stage a protest and march at Queen's Park, effectively shutting down schools for one day before Christmas, a union official told The Globe and Mail.
High-school teachers will be voting in the coming days on whether they would support a political protest should the government move to block their strike action. The results of that vote are expected the week of Dec. 17.