By Sue Tiffin
At precisely 1:15 p.m. on April 4 the front doors of Haliburton Highlands Secondary School opened and more than 50 students walked out of class to protest changes being made to the province’s education system by the PC government that include proposed increased class sizes mandatory e-learning modules changes to OSAP including the free tuition currently offered to low-income families a classroom cellphone ban and potential teacher job cuts.
The province-wide walkout which was intended to last until 2:15 p.m. that day saw thousands of students participating across Ontario in the student-led movement. Locally the walkout was organized by Grade 12 HHSS student and TLDSB student representative Chloe Samson who said she was inspired by a fellow G7 rep at LCVI in Lindsay who was organizing that school’s walkout. Samson created an Instagram page for the local walkout and registered the school in the provincial walkout online database.
“Today I was really hoping to get a lot of students” said Samson as the walkout began and the crowd of students gathered by the side of the road in front of the train located on the school property. “Some students who are coming here were saying ‘oh it’s not going to make a difference.’ So I’m trying to tell them … it’s not so much [about] making a difference right now it’s having a voice and showing that we all believe in something.”
Samson said the cuts to education that might see teachers lose their jobs and the increase in class sizes were worrisome as well as potential losses to the educational assistant team which help her peers access education.
“They’re looking at maybe who knows it could be up to seven teachers cut from the school” she said. “It’s just a random number. But if teachers are cut it’s going to affect so many students learning styles and upping the amount of students in a classroom it doesn’t seem fitting for any school especially a smaller school. I think it’s going to really affect us negatively especially with a lot of students with learning disabilities and we know we have low scores with EQAO so I think we need more teachers not less.”
In an interview with the Echo prior to the walkout fifth year HHSS student Madeline Hopkins said students had discussed the policy changes in leadership class.
“We spoke about it in class just students without teachers and we discussed how in order for us to start some type of change it has to start at the roots of who it is affecting the students and the parents” said Hopkins. “And so yes school boards and teachers they can say what they want to say but it’s also just as important equally important to have the students and the parents speaking and demonstrating how they feel.”
Samson and Hopkins said in their experience an increase in class size would be detrimental with Hopkins noting her Grade 10 English class had 35 students in it “and it was awful.”
“It’s the same whether or not I was an A student or a D student I still have tons of questions that I want answered” she said. “In a class of 35 there’s a huge spectrum of the abilities of the students that are in that class and different learning styles.”
Samson said Minister of Education Lisa Thompson’s statement about larger classrooms leading to more resilient students was not fair.
“Resiliency is her going around it honestly because a lot of students for me personally I am not an A student” she said. “And I have a different learning style I need to speak to the teacher to fully comprehend things because when I am just given the information like the teacher does when they’re teaching that’s not enough for me I need more. And there are plenty of students who have a similar learning style to me [larger class sizes are] just putting them all at a disadvantage when they could be learning better.”
Hopkins said the physical space in the classrooms suggests they are not intended to hold so many students.
“Our science labs they’re not big enough to hold classes that are that big” she said. “That’s obviously not as relevant as other issues that we’re facing but it’s just going to be a hard shift.”
The HHSS students also said the four mandatory online classes proposed by the government were not suited to the Haliburton community and would be difficult for some students without access to computers high-speed internet or transportation to get to and from the library to complete.
“And with online courses there’s a huge disconnect between the teacher and the student” said Hopkins. “Most of us have taken at least one online course and it’s not ideal. You can’t have one-on-one’s with the teacher. Online courses are tailored for one specific type of learning pretty much so if you need to be able to speak with the teacher need other resources it’s very hard to get them.”
Prior to the change the students said it was difficult to get approval for online courses.
“And that was for a reason” said Grade 12 HHSS student Josie Quigley. “It’s because online courses aren’t ideal for most students they don’t work for a lot of students. It requires an insane amount of organization and time management that I don’t think most Grade 9s have developed yet.”
The students also worried out loud about the potential to lose expertise with teacher cuts and said they think the teacher-student ratio is “right on the brink.”
The April 4 HHSS walkout was peaceful with students working to make the most impact with their signs on passing vehicles. Some signs read “you can’t spell TEAM without an EA” in a nod to educational assistants one read “education is an investment not a cost” one read “strong education equals strong economy” and one suggested there were jobs available at the racetrack in a nod to the Ford government’s announcement to invest $10 million per year in Ontario’s horse racing industry.
Photos of the walkout posted to the Echo’s Facebook page resulted in comments that praised the students for taking a stand and some that also accused the students of being coerced into the walkout by their teachers none who were at the scene of the protest last Thursday.
One comment said “I spoke to tons of students. Most were unaware of the politics just liked the idea of not being in class for a little while don’t leverage them for leftist agenda.”
One comment read in part “Students have a right to make a statement about the state of education in the province of Ontario and [Premier] Doug Ford needs to be stopped. All great change has been brought about through public action.”
Prior to the walkout responding to adults criticizing the students Samson said: “Honestly everyone’s free to their own opinion and I respect everyone for saying what they believe in but I think that is completely wrong. We are here to make noise to show that we have a voice and to just represent what we believe in and our rights. It’s OK for them to say they don’t believe in this and it’s OK for us to do what we want to do because we believe we are doing something that’s correct and right and hopefully it’s going to send a proper message.”
Minister of Education Lisa Thompson issued a statement on April 4 at 5:20 p.m. following the walkout.
“Today is a disappointing day for Ontario’s parents and students” reads the statement. “On a day when we reached out to begin good-faith consultations with Ontario’s teachers we instead are seeing Ontario teachers’ unions condoning a student walkout at schools across the province. We know teachers’ unions organized student walkouts under the previous government. I’m concerned we may be seeing the same thing now as teachers’ unions are clearly not discouraging this stunt.”
Thompson said “over half of Ontario’s sixth grade students are failing to meet an acceptable standard on their math tests” and said teachers’ unions “have offered no solution to the math crisis.” She said teachers were enabling students to skip classes rather than focusing on math.
“And even when students are in class too many teachers are choosing to use students as a captive audience for their union’s political agenda.”
Thompson said the provincial government is renewing Ontario’s curriculum to ensure students have math science and financial literacy skills and had passed legislation that will require teachers to complete a math content knowledge test.
“In the meantime I want to remind parents that should they be concerned about their child’s safety because of any union support of the walkout they always have the option to contact the Ontario College of Teachers which is the regulatory body responsible for teacher misconduct.”
“…I want everyone in Ontario to know that we are prepared to take action to give parents peace of mind that no one will ever use our children as a captive audience or bargaining chip as part of their union’s political games.”
Samson said Thompson’s statement was “upsetting and unsettling.”
“Teachers are not using us for their own political agenda” she wrote to the Echo following the walkout. “They are supporting and looking out for their students that they know more personally than say the Minister of Education knows each student. [The provincial government has] a warped agenda to get students back to the levels and scores they perhaps once were by going back to the old way of teaching but they do not realize that today is a new age and things are evolving. Nothing is staying the same and things need to advance not go back … Everybody is entitled to their own opinion but I do not support hers.”
HHSS vice-principal David Waito said prior to the event the school would encourage students to consider alternatives to the walkout such as writing to their local MPP or the Minister of Education. He said students were not encouraged to leave class but acknowledged their right to peacefully protest. All students who participated in the walkout were marked absent from class.
Samson thanked the students for “gathering and leaving the classes respectfully and returning after the walkout finished respectfully but also protesting with all their hearts.”