Ontario school boards on Thursday tried to understand the implications of the provincial government’s announcement of specific class-size targets, days before the start of the school year.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday that the average high-school class size for the coming school year would be 22.5 students, up from 22 last year. Average class sizes for Grades 4 to 8 will also increase from 23.84 to 24.5 students this year.

In March, the government announced that average high-school class sizes would increase to 28 over four years to cut costs.

“I want to reassure students and their families that this September, class sizes will remain effectively the same as last year,” he said.

Misinformation had led some to understand that average class sizes would be much higher this year, he said, adding that the government’s current plan is still to increase high-school class-size averages to 28 by 2023 – but the change will be gradual.

The announcement also comes as the government is set to begin labour negotiations with teachers unions. Mr. Lecce suggested that class sizes may not have to increase as high as 28 in the future if unions can find other cost-saving measures to bring to the table. Teacher contracts expire Aug. 31.

“Any ideas they have: trustees associations, unions and otherwise if they have ideas that can help within our fiscal realities bring those numbers down, I’m open to hearing them,” he said.

School boards contacted Thursday by The Globe and Mail said they’re reviewing the information from the government and waiting for more details. The 22.5 students per class is a provincial average. Some boards, such as the Toronto District School Board, had already planned to have larger classes.

The TDSB announced earlier this year that as a result of the provincial changes, it was boosting the average class size to 23.6.

Carla Pereira, director of communications at the Peel District School Board, said her board is waiting for the government to release technical documents which should clarify class-size expectations, but added that since the school year is about to begin, it may be difficult to make changes.

“It’s certainly atypical to receive this kind of direction at this time of the year,” she said.

Thursday’s announcement was a change in tone from the government, according to Leslie Wolfe, president of the Toronto branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

If the boards now have to keep class sizes below 22.5 students, it could mean more teachers with jobs this year. It would also be chaotic, she added, given that administrators are already preparing for the first day of school.

“This is a major change in the message” she said. “If [Mr. Lecce] is saying that every board has to staff at 22.5 to one, then there will be a lot of changes to teacher timetables over the next couple of weeks.”

The government is set to begin negotiating a new collective agreement with teachers this fall. Ms. Wolfe rejected Mr. Lecce’s suggestion that class sizes could be negotiated with teachers in exchange for other savings.

She said her union was not interested in “bargaining with students’ learning conditions.”

In March, Mr. Lecce’s predecessor, Lisa Thompson, drew fire from parents’ groups, students, school boards and unions when she announced the increases in class sizes. In the spring, hundreds of courses were cancelled in high schools across the province and some school boards issued redundancy notices to teachers as a result of the provincial changes.

Class-size averages in Ontario are among the lowest in the country. The provincial government said it is providing $1.6-billion over the next four years to ensure that no teacher will face involuntary job loss because of proposed changes to class size. Teachers who retire or leave voluntarily, however, will not be replaced as frequently.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said Thursday’s announcement was nothing more than window dressing as the Ford government continues cuts to teaching staff that are creating chaos for schools and students.

“Doug Ford’s class-size hike is still going ahead,” she said, dismissing Mr. Lecce’s news conference as an “11th-hour damage-control attempt to soften that bad news by the Ford government.”

The Globe and Mail, August 22, 2019