Students at Owen Sound District Secondary School chanted “Cuts hurt kids” and held up signs with slogans like “Students are under attack” after walking out of class Thursday afternoon to protest proposed government cuts and changes to Ontario’s education system.
The 45-minute “Students Say No” walkout at OSDSS was one of roughly 700 such events that took place at the same time at elementary and high schools throughout Ontario.
Locally, the demonstrations happened at about nine Bluewater and Bruce Grey Catholic District board schools.
“We have organized this today as an opportunity for students who oppose the cuts to education proposed by Ford’s government to come out and get loud and stay respectful, but to show our side of things and to show that we, the students, do have a voice, are paying attention and understand what this can mean for us,” said Mathea Treslan, an organizer of the OSDSS walkout.
She said her biggest concern is the plan, announced in mid-March by Education Minister Lisa Thompson, to increase class sizes from an average of 22 to 28 students in high schools and 24 to 25 pupils in grades 4 to 8.
“That would end up creating a teacher job loss, so we’re looking at 40 to 50 teachers for our board, and that would be done through attrition,” she said.
“So teachers wouldn’t be replaced after they retire, which can create program loss. Especially at our school, we have a great diversity of specialized programs – we have shop classes, art classes – and these could be lost.
“For example, if a shop teacher retires, a teacher with those credentials wouldn’t be hired to replace that teacher necessarily and the program could be lost. And that’s how it would come back to affecting us, the students.”
Students were also protesting proposals that would require high school students to take e-learning courses in order to graduate, potential teacher layoffs and cuts to autism, OSAP and other programs.
About 400 to 500 OSDSS students left classes at 1:15 p.m. to participate in the rally, which ended at 2 p.m. They were joined about halfway through by students from nearly Hillcrest Elementary School, who walked over as a group.
“It was a great turnout and the spirit was even better than I thought it would be,” Treslan said. “It went as well or better than anyone expected on the organizing committee and it was nice that some Hillcrest kids came over as well.”
About 125 students also walked out at Owen Sound’s other secondary school – St. Mary’s High School – across town. Students waved signs opposing education cuts at passing motorists.
More than 100 students at John Diefenbaker Senior School in Hanover participated in a rally there.
Walkouts were also held in Walkerton – at both Sacred Heart High School and Walkerton District – and in Port Elgin at Saugeen District Secondary School.
OSDSS Grade 12 student Reid Locking said the change that most concerns him is the proposed new requirement for each high school student, starting in 2020-21, to take one online credit per year in order to graduate.
“That’s not how most students at our school learn. They need classes, they need teachers that are there to support them. Kids that are in e-learning programs are less likely to pass because it’s to their own devices to pass it and that’s just not fair to the students,” he said.
A #StudentsSayNo provincial organizing team, made up of a group of high school students, co-ordinated the walkout and created guides for local organizers, which promoted their individual school demonstrations via Instagram.
Treslan said about 10 students organized the OSDSS walkout.
Students were also protesting proposed cuts to the Ontario Autism Program and Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) – including the end of free tuition for students in low-income families – as well as a cell phone ban in classrooms.
Organizers say the ban would deprive students of a necessary learning tool, while the education ministry has said cellphones in the classroom are too often a distraction from learning.
Thompson has said the proposed class size changes would put Ontario more in line with other jurisdictions in Canada.
She said the changes will save the province $250 million in the first year, but will not result in teacher layoffs.
However, teachers’ unions have said the changes would be devastating to the province’s education system and result in the loss of thousands of front-line teaching positions.
The People for Education says changes proposed by the province would result in a nearly $1 billion cut to education funding and 7,200 teaching positions.
Thompson has said proposed changes to education also include the implementation of stronger math, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and financial literacy curricula and improved skilled trades opportunities. She said the e-learning courses will allow students to “put their best foot forward” and is a way to embrace technology.
“We will make sure our students are leaving school with the skills they need to build good lives, families and careers right here in Ontario, while ensuring the system is both fiscally sustainable and respectful of parents,” she said in a March 15 statement.
Thompson has said the province is consulting on the proposed education system changes until the end of May.
She said the consultation process is the proper forum for people to voice their concerns as opposed to the provincial student walkout.