Douglas — Students at Opeongo High School (OHS) sent a clear message to the provincial government last Thursday that proposed changes to education are going to be extremely harmful to everyone involved in the process.
Most students left their classrooms at 1:30 to participate in a “walk-in” protest of the proposed changes, making their way to the cafeteria where the issues were addressed by members of the student body.
Grade 12 student Ebonie Kauffeldt, who co-ordinated the protest along with Carolyn Wytenburg, thanked students for standing up for their right to have an opinion about what happens to their education.
“Today, we are here to protest the education cuts that have been created within our provincial government system,” she said.
She explained the proposed changes/cuts were widespread, including job loss, increased class size, budgeting, reduction of program choice, mandatory e-learning, and the cut of help for low-income families and post-secondary students.
“Many have asked if this affects you, and I am here to tell you that not only will you be affected but also those who are soon approaching secondary schooling,” she said.
She encouraged everyone with younger siblings, younger relations, and younger friends to raise their hands who either are or will be in the education system soon.
“Look around,” she urged. “This will not only be affecting us, but the growing generation, and, if you are still not worried about society, think about what education will be like by the time we have grown and have our own children.”
Ebony noted those approaching post-secondary education and those already there will be affected by the cuts to free education and the changes in eligibility for OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) grants.
She people who have the power to help and to change the future outcomes are not even sure why the cuts are occurring. She quoted from an article in the Hamilton Spectator that stated Minister of Education Lisa Thompson claimed no jobs would be lost as result of the increase (in class sizes).
“She doesn’t answer towards the benefits of class size increase, instead, she states that parents can pay for tutors,” she said. “I don’t know about you, but my parents could not afford a tutor.
“She does not answer why the e-learning is good for students and does not mention the $1.4 billion being cut from grants, which most of them help special education and support students at risk,” she added.
Changing Policy On Autism
Alexa Gamache addressed proposed cuts that will adversely affect the delivery of services to students with autism noting 40,000 children in Ontario have the developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication. She added about 2,400 are waiting for a diagnosis, 23,000 are on a waiting list for behavioural therapies and just 8,400 are actually receiving treatment services.
Alexa said the Ford government is changing the policy to allow families to choose the services from providers of their choice on a fee-for-service basis.
“We want the province to increase funding, not just take the same amount and spread it around. They are clearing the wait lists but doing it on the expense of our own education.
“We need to give these families the resources and respect they deserve,” she added. “These kids need support to succeed, both in and out of school.”
Under the new regulations, the cost of therapies would be covered but parents would be required to pay the remainder themselves.
“And for lower income families, it’s difficult or impossible to do,” she stated. “And it’s not affordable.”
She stated everyone in the room had a goal in life, a talent or something else that they were working towards.
“Being here today just goes to show how much you really care about your education and that we are not going to be manipulated. And no, we’re not going to leave 40,000 students behind because they stand beside us, not behind us.
“We are all students, we are all Wildcats, we are all friends and we are a community, so let’s stand together today and leave nobody behind,” she added. “The leadership we demonstrate today is going to determine our future tomorrow.”
No Input Sought
“I don’t know about you, but the government didn’t ask me if I wanted bigger classes,” Grade 9 student Megan Covell said. “They didn’t ask me if I wanted my teachers to leave, or if I thought we should get rid of sports, arts and other clubs.
“They didn’t ask me if I wanted to take online classes, they didn’t ask me if I wanted to get rid of tons of electives,” she added. “They didn’t ask me if I thought we should cut budgets, they didn’t ask me if I thought the solution to teaching us to be more resilient was to increase class sizes.”
She said 40 teachers would be leaving Renfrew County, 240 classes and 60 electives will be cut, and small classes like calculus, art, tech, and chemistry will be gone.
“Special education teachers and other education partners and workers will be fired or laid off, not just teachers. Class size average will go up from 22 to 28 and this impacts all of us.
“We need to put our foot down and say no,” she said. “
She said with the average class size increasing to 28, classes with 35 or mores students will be the norm.
“That means we will be in classes of many students, all after a little bit of the teacher’s time,” she pointed out. “More kids doesn’t make teaching group-working skills any easier.”
She said while teaching kids to thoughtfully engage with each other, be respectful of differences of opinion, support each other, and be accountable for their fair share of the work are important aspects of group work, adding more groups for a teacher to monitor only ensures each group or student gets less teacher time.
She pointed out the government said no teachers will lose their jobs, yet there have already been cuts and lay-offs.
Cuts Will Affect Aboriginal Classes
Emma Logan spoke on behalf of her First Nation, Pikwakanagan, saying that Premier Ford is going backwards on reconciliation. Last year, she said, Opeongo had its first Aboriginal studies class.
“We had three different Aboriginal classes and I know from my experiences, this let First Nation students regain their history. It also let non-Indigenous students learn about the culture and the real history as we have been taught wrong, or maybe, just not enough history our whole lives.”
She noted next year, there is not enough consideration for multiple Aboriginal classes and there isn’t enough non-Indigenous students signing up.
“We weren’t recognized enough and we are the only school with this much admiration for the culture,” she remarked. “Because of this, the budgeting cuts and doubling classroom size, there is a small possibility there will be one class.
“Taking this out of our schools is one step closer to taking it out of our communities,” she added. “It’s been nice to experience our culture outside of the community and for the off-reserve kids and non-Indigenous students to start learning and experiencing it, so we really want to keep that going.”
Concerned With Increases in E-learning
Grade 12 student Carolyn Wytenburg has many concerns with the proposed changes especially relating to four e-learning courses to be eligible to graduate.
“As someone who has taken three online courses, I can say from experience that they are way more difficult than regular courses,” she said. “Asking a teacher questions about upcoming assignments must be done through e-mails, where it is exponentially harder to communicate what you need help with.
“Most of the time, the teacher’s response isn’t all that helpful or applicable to the question you ask,” she added. “Not to mention, that usually the teacher isn’t even online the period you have the class.”
She noted people learn in different ways and online courses cater to those who learn by reading or by teaching themselves.
“They completely ignore visual, physical, and audio learners and force them into a new learning format that doesn’t benefit them,” she explained. “In addition to this, students who struggle with online classes may be at risk of lowering their grade average and as a result, could potentially be denied entrance to their post-secondary program.”
Another issue with online courses is the availability of them, she pointed out.
“Being such a rural school, not everyone lives in an area where they are able to get internet at home, and not everyone can afford it.”
Carolyn also addressed said schools now have policies in place to deal with the improper use of cell phones, so banning them entirely makes no sense.
“It overlooks all the uses of phones in a school setting just because a few individuals choose to use them in a wrong way,” she said.
Budget Cuts Mean Fewer Courses
Grade 12 student Daniella Bell said with the cuts, one in every four classes could be eliminated, forcing high schools to offer fewer courses.
“This could significantly impact special programs, especially programs in the arts,” she cautioned.
While some may argue arts are not fundamental to education, students across the province and at Opeongo strongly disagree, she said.
“I truly believe that the arts are just as important as math, science, English, and physical education. The arts allow us to express our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts.
“They give us the freedom to create our own visions and share our ideas with the world,” she added. “It is an outlet for stress, anxiety, depression. The arts are fundamental, not only to our education, but to our mental health.”
She encouraged students to write their MPP, use social media respectfully and intelligently to spread the message that Ontario’s youth oppose these changes to education.
“Students, say no. Make your voice heard. Make this walk-out mean something.
“Let’s show Ontario that its youth care about the future of education.”
“Let’s show Ontario that this is more than a ‘get-out-of-class-for-free-day’.”
OHS principal Neil Farmer said he had been approached by the three girls who co-ordinated the protest.
“They came and told us they were going to be doing this. They said they were walking out of class at 1:30 and told us they were going to stay within the school, so we were happy about that.
“We had a very respectful, student-led protest on educational cuts,” he said. “Maybe given the remoteness of our school here, the students decided to stay within the school and they gathered in our cafeteria.
He said the OPP was notified of the protest adding there were zero incidents.
“Good for the students, we’re very proud of them actually because they’ve taken that initiative,” he said. “Nobody told them to do it, nobody forced them to do it, and as I said earlier, more than the majority participated in it.
“I’m not sure if they know all of the issues completely, I’m not sure if we do either, but certainly they know it’s going to impact their education,” he added.