May also strike next Tuesday and Wednesday if no agreement is reached
In a new building on York Road, across from the Husky Travel Centre, a small staff of four people are working diligently to ensure quality working conditions for local elementary school teachers.
And what’s best for the teachers is also what’s best for the students, says Jada Nicklefork, president of the Niagara local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO).
That means, at this time, dealing with ongoing strikes and bargaining talks — or lack of them — with the Province.
The ETFO is one of the four major teachers’ unions without a contract this school year, all engaged in differing forms of job action in protest.
Nicklefork, who also sits on the ETFO’s collective bargaining advisory committee, says union members were hopeful leading up to last week’s talks there would be some resolution to the conflict, “that we could get back to normalcy,” but after three days, were disappointed there would be no agreement.
Nicklefork said the continuing concern of the union is class size, particularly in Kindergarten and the early grades, and the ability to have both a teacher and an early childhood educator (ECE) in the classroom, which she says is being threatened.
The Ford government has said it is offering a commitment to full-day Kindergarten for next year — what he plans after that is unclear — and wants to increase class sizes.
“What we’ve found from studies is you need two teachers in the classroom for Kindergarten. The ECE can help with social skills, and the teacher can teach. Without that partnership, there just isn’t enough support for these very young kids.”
Some may be on the autism spectrum, but not yet identified as such. Some may not be toilet-trained, and there may be issues of violence, such as biting and kicking, all issues that require more attention than one teacher can provide with a large class of students, she says.
There is also a shortage of resources to identify students with special needs, and to help them once they have been identified.
This strike is not about teachers being greedy, she adds. Doug Ford’s government has imposed a one per cent cap on public employees, while the cost of living increase is two per cent.
Following talks last week, government has said while it has addressed each of the union’s issues, it keeps coming back to that extra one percent.
“Teachers just want to keep up with inflation. They want to have the same buying power today that they had last year.”
When the union surveys the teachers about what they want, “money is not even in the top five issues,” she says. “It’s all about working conditions, and teachers equate that with learning conditions for their students. All teachers want is what’s best for their students.”
Another key issue in negotiations for high school teachers is the government’s direction to incorporate online learning into the curriculum. While it doesn’t affect elementary teachers now, says Nicklefork, it could in the future. She’s heard talk of online classes starting in high school and eventually reaching Grade 6 students, and even if it is restricted to high school students, “it will impact all students in the future.”
Elementary school teachers are feeling overwhelming support from parents, she says, “and for that we are so grateful.”
She believes parents understand teachers are doing what is best for the kids, not only of today, but for the future.
“If we don’t fight now, that money will be pulled out of education, and we’ll never get it back.”
A provincial strike of elementary schools in the public sector has been called for Thursday, with boards also participating in daily rotating strikes.
The Catholic elementary school teachers in Niagara protested Tuesday, and the ETFO teachers in the District School Board of Niagara will be on strike Friday. Niagara elementary teachers are also expected to strike next Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 11 and 13, if no agreement is reached.
Although this is report card time, and elementary teachers completed their reporting obligations, Nicklefork says, the DSBN and many other boards have chosen not to send those report cards home. Extra-curricular activities, considered as “struck work,” have been cancelled, with teachers under work to rule instructions since November 26.
This Thursday and Friday, Feb. 6 and 7, teachers from Niagara-on-the-Lake public schools will protest at the five corners in Niagara Falls, outside Commisso’s, as they did in their Jan. 23 participation in a rotating strike.
“Our battle is not with our parents,” Nicklefork says. “It never has been. It’s also not with the school board. These protests are about visibility, letting others, those too young to have kids now — our future parents — and grandparents as well, know why we are striking.”
Teachers spend about $1,000 out of their own pockets to pay for school supplies, even necessities such as books and pencils, because there is no money in the budget to pay for them, she says.
“Kids aren’t getting the resources they need. Some teachers are paying for food and clothing for their students. Teachers do a lot more than teach.”
As for the future, the union can only hope for more talks, but at the moment “we’re disappointed this is not progressing,” she says.
“Is the government going to call us back to speak in Toronto? We never know day to day what to expect.”
The legislature resumes in about two weeks, but if the premier decides to legislate teachers back to work before then, he can call an emergency session, a process Ford has called “a last step.”