Editorial: Our students are not negotiation pawns

As families prepare for students to return to school this fall, they do so with continued anxiety and trepidation as labour issues have cast a ominous shadow over what should be a positive time of year.

Labour issues continue to be the sticking point between the provincial government and unions, school boards and contractors, and all points in between. For over a year, elementary and secondary school teachers have been without a labour agreement. Locally since March, Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario has been without a bus transportation agreement with 19 area bus companies to transport three-quarters of the students who go to school in Eastern Ontario. That equates to nearly 30,000 students between the Upper Canada District School Board and the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario – who jointly own STEO.

If this was a one-off labour challenge, a bad year per se, it could be excused without comment – but it is not. In fact, eight of the last 10 school years have had some form of issue, be it labour or bus contract, school closure process, or public health emergency. If the education system is to focus on students, why is the focus so often on all the disputes? What is the root cause for these issues? Simply put – it is everyone who makes decisions in the education system. Students are just the pawns for negotiation.

Labour and contractor negotiations are left to the absolute last minute to force parties into an agreement. In the case of STEO bus contracts, this should have been resolved when the last agreement was up in March. Teacher contracts should have been agreed to in August 2022. Why do these different parties have to send families into a frenzy at the last possible minute in order to be able to solve their problems? Again, students are just the pawns for negotiation.

Do those at the Ministry of Education, school boards, transportation consortiums, labour unions, or contractors ever worry about what impact this has on families? These parties’ actions all say no. When organizations like Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario say to families “keep planning” – it is difficult to feel like anyone involved knows what that impact really is.

Rural school communities, like South Dundas, have transportation issues – there is no public transit to fall back on. Families, not school board administration or the Ministry, have to deal with the fall out. When students do not have activities to do because of labour strife, or even classes, it is families who have to cope. Again, because students are the negotiating pawns.

Ontario’s education system needs a full-scale review from top-to-bottom to fix how it negotiates labour agreements, and how services like bus transportation are settled. Students in Ontario are not pawns for either side to use to score points. Students are the whole reason the Education System exists and it is about time the adults in the room start acting like it.

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