“We have a fight on our hands”

Two teachers on what the Rally for Education meant

“We have a fight on our hands”

On April 6, thousands of people crowded the lawns of Queen’s Park. Union flags swung above the crowd while kids dodged through protesters’ legs, dragging cardboard signs behind them.

Jointly organized by five Ontario teachers’ unions, the Rally for Education was held to protest the Ford government’s proposed cuts to education funding. Teachers, students, and concerned citizens shook signs and fists at the Ontario Legislative Building, which loomed over those gathered in its shadow.

Under the government’s new plan, 3,475 full-time teaching positions would disappear, with 1,558 positions this coming school year alone. Doug Ford further plans to increase the average class sizes of both elementary and high schools, as well as introduce mandatory online classes for secondary students. The government also proposed sweeping changes to funding for students with autism, which would drastically reduce their overall support.

Teachers, already underpaid and overworked, are infuriated. But not out of concern for their jobs or their workloads. Overwhelmingly, they’re worried about their students and what these cuts will mean for their quality of education.

To get a better sense of what this means, I asked two Ottawa-based middle school teachers: Lori-Ann Zylstra and Cindy May, who’ve both worked in education for over two decades.

Cindy is my mom, and Lori-Ann is her sister, my aunt. They’re both represented by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and teach in rural schools outside of Ottawa. They woke up at 4:30 am to catch the bus to Toronto for the rally and went back that same afternoon.

Lori-Ann, Cindy, and the author

“I went to the protest today because I felt it was really important to stand and be counted,” Lori-Ann told me. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding among the general public simply because they’re not teachers. When people hear 28 kids as a class size, for example, they don’t realize that that’s an average.”

Cindy nodded. “I have huge concerns about the impact of the cuts on the classroom. And what it’s actually going to mean, face to face, day to day with the students,” she added.

Classes are already dangerously large, they explained, and increasing them further will have significant negative effects on students. On rare occasions when a number of students are not in class, Cindy told me, “students who are remaining will almost always say, ‘Wow, this is so nice, we have so much time to talk about things and do things.’”

They’re also concerned about the impact the funding cuts will have on students with autism. “Doug Ford presents it like some new thing that there will be students with autism in the classroom,” Lori-Ann said, but “it is already common for me to have one or more students who are on the autism spectrum in my class.”

 She’s received no special training in how to better teach children with unique needs, but there is usually extra funding to provide specialized support. But “what [Ford] is going to do is take it all away and fund them with the same amount as a kid who isn’t on the spectrum,” she explained. This will transfer sole responsibility of their care to already-overburdened teachers.

While Lori-Ann told me that she wouldn’t mind taking on those responsibilities, she explained that “the problem is that it is already challenging to adequately service the the academic and social and emotional needs in my classroom.”

“The government claims… cuts are about fiscal responsibility,” Cindy continued. “If this is what all these changes and cuts are supposed to be about, then let’s get to the real meaning of that. Let’s address the mental health needs of our students, the social determinants of their health, development needs and so on. What are we doing now to address those?” She shook her head.

Both Cindy and Lori-Ann were also deeply concerned about what mandatory online courses for high school students might mean. “Unless you are a student who is very self-directed with lots of initiative, you aren’t going to succeed in online-only courses,” Lori-Ann explained. Furthermore, “the strong possibility is that there’s going to be private companies administering these courses,” which would effectively “move us toward the two-tier educational system,” she said.

A two-tier educational system would look something like this: children from wealthy families would be sent to high quality private schools, whereas children from poorer families would be effectively ghettoized into lower quality public schools. “And I think this is just Doug Ford’s first step into privatizing education. He’s trying to Americanize it.” Lori-Ann warned. “And we see where that’s gotten the Americans,” Cindy added.

If this worries you, take action. Cindy and Lori-Ann both hoped everyday people would engage critically with the government’s rhetoric and “just ask teachers questions, ask [them] what [they’re] so upset about.” Members of the public are also welcome to join teachers in the #RedForEd campaign, wherein supporters wear red shirts every Friday in solidarity with teachers and education workers. But most importantly, show up! “Anytime that there’s any sort of rally or protest, everyone is welcome,” Lori-Ann smiled.

“This was just the first step, I’m certain, in a series of movements and initiatives that teachers are going to take,” she said.

“In my 25 years of teaching, I’ve never seen anything like [these cuts],” Cindy said. “We have a fight on our hands. And as teachers we need to be prepared to step up and fight for our students education.” We all do.

Robarts opens Canada’s first academic library family study space

Room designed to address unique needs of students and staff with children aged 12 and under

Robarts opens Canada’s first academic library family study space

On March 15, University of Toronto Libraries, in collaboration with the Family Care Office, opened a family study space at Robarts Library, the first of its kind in Canada.

Designed for current students, faculty members, visiting scholars, and staff at U of T with their children aged 12 years and under, the space is intended to foster equity, diversity, and inclusivity by addressing the unique needs of student parents.

Students with family obligations are often “not what we think of as a traditional student,” said Francesca Dobbin, Director of U of T’s Family Programs and Services. “They’re usually students who… many times, aside from their student responsibilities, are holding down some part-time jobs so they really have to juggle their time carefully to make sure they meet their academic requirements. And they don’t always have the after-hour resources and care to be able to run into the library after their child care day has ended at 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening.”

At the University of Toronto, based on a 2016 report, 18 per cent of doctoral students have one or more children, while 11 per cent of professional master’s students and five per cent of research master’s students do. Roughly half of doctoral students said that family obligations presented an obstacle to their studies, while 44.3 per cent of research master’s students and 49.3 per cent of professional master’s students said the same. Dobbin said that no data was collected for undergraduate student parents using the Family Care Office.

Dobbin explained that student parents often find it difficult to fully benefit from a postsecondary education due to time constraints and reduced ability to participate in clubs or activities. The Family Study Space is intended to build a sense of community by fostering cooperation among students using the space.

The room, located on the ninth floor of Robarts at room 9-002, has a capacity of up to 20 adults and children. Availability is on a first-come, first-serve basis to those who obtain a free access fob through the Robarts Library carrel office.

In addition, the room includes a variety of toys and seating for children, as well as equipment for students such as carrels with computers or space for laptops, a screen for presentations or collaborative work, and a main table.

Dobbin said that in her experience, universities that take on similar projects typically have a higher proportion of mature students, such as college transfer students feeding into universities or veterans who have returned to school later in life.

While McGill University has offered kits with child-focused activities to student parents at libraries, Dobbin said that the Family Study Space was selected to more comprehensively address the needs of student parents.

A team including Communications and User Services Librarian Jesse Carliner, User Services Librarian Kyla Everall, Operations and Building Services, and the Family Care Office worked in conjunction to assess an ideal space and determine necessary design elements.

Dobbin and Carliner said that they had received number of positive messages and tweets from student parents grateful for the space. As of March 28, 55 students or staff had registered for the space.

“We hope this will start a trend of more family inclusive spaces and services at universities throughout Canada,” said Carliner.

Addressing the challenges of being a parent and full-time student

Re: “Students with children feel “invisible” at U of T”

Addressing the challenges of being a parent and full-time student

It is disheartening to know that anyone feels invisible in a community that usually thrives on inclusion and networking through various campus events and clubs. Personally, I hadn’t realized that there were students on campus who were struggling with raising children while studying at university. Finding a viable solution that can fix the issue is a priority in order to help students who are trying to handle being both full-time parents and full-time students.

Childcare services are already overburdened at the university. While this problem is being sorted out, one solution might be to offer parents additional structural support through the accessibility services provided at each U of T campus, in order to make it easier to take time off and care for children. The statement found on the Accessibility Services web page claims that “It is the University of Toronto’s goal to create a community that is inclusive…and treats all members…in an equitable manner.” Although having a disability and having a child to care for are fundamentally different circumstances, the stressors experienced by people in both situations might be similar. For example, students in both these positions might struggle to juggle essays and assignments with childcare or personal health responsibilities.

In Ontario, a maximum of 63 weeks of parental leave is granted to individuals who have children. But university terms continue on whether you have to care for a child or not. The only options new parents have are to try and balance childcare responsibilities with schoolwork, or to postpone their educations altogether. With this in mind, students with children should be given more support from the university so that they aren’t forced to put their degrees on hold.

Areej Rodrigo is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying English and Theatre and Performance Studies.