More than 200 take part in peaceful demonstration Thursday
In throngs two-to-three deep, NDSS students lined the sidewalk nearly the full length of the school’s Belleville Road frontage Thursday to voice their opposition to education funding cuts contemplated by the provincial government.
Some waved clever signage bearing slogans like “WTF: Where’s the Funding,” “We can’t af-Ford this,” or “Teachers just wanna have funds” and many offered chants like “Cuts hurt kids!” as the local students joined in with an estimated 100,000 peers in 800 schools across Ontario.
Organizer Meghan Mosgrove thought about 200 students took part. Although she’s graduating, she has concerns about increasing class sizes, decreasing funding envelopes for teachers and student supports, and an anticipated loss in the range of programming available. Changes to funding programs that would support her post-secondary career are also a concern.
While Mosgrove said she understands the province is in debt, she questions whether Premier Doug Ford really believes in the course of action his government is taking.
“I would definitely ask him — I know a lot of people are furious about this and I definitely am, but he’s not going to listen to anybody screaming at him — honestly, I’d ask if he really believes in his heart, other than wanting to make up the amount of money we lost in debt, if he really believes that cutting from education would help at all.”
She said she feels there’s already not enough funding for psychological services and educational assistants now, so losing even more of that support likely isn’t going to help anyone.
Changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program to offer some funding as loans instead of grants and to eliminate a grace period to start paying back loans also worry the senior student.
“I’m not privileged enough to go to school on a free ride or have my parents help fund me, it’s all on me to make up that money,” she said. “I understand the reason for (the short grace period) but I’m not for it because as a student right out of university, it’s going to be a lot for me to pay $400 or $500 a month in loans. For other students that’s also the case.”
Co-organizer Ariel Burgess also questions the path the government plans.
“We’re not setting students up to succeed,” she said.
She wondered if the government’s e-learning ideas would work, given the nature of Internet access in rural areas. Burgess also has seen the class-size creep already impacting her education.
“My law class has 34 kids. If you add six more in one classroom under one teacher, that’s a lot. And for the kids who don’t have that, if you get any less than 20 he’ll probably can the class because ‘why waste that teacher power?’ My bio class I’m using for university applications to up my average, that could be gone.”
Mosgrove agreed, adding while not all of NDSS’s classes are overwhelmed because it is a rural school, it is still hard enough to find support now — and larger class sizes will just make that worse.
“I struggle to get help when I need it. I’m good at advocating for myself, but if my struggles are difficult, imagine what someone else’s struggles are,” she said. “Our classes aren’t that large because we’re a rural school, but it’s pretty difficult as it is to make time to ask a teacher for help when there’s already other students raising their hands to ask questions.”
Impacts on teaching and support staff also weigh on the students.
“When teachers are overworked, we lose the fun part of education. We lose the field trips and we lose those extracurriculars that everybody loves,” she said. “I would love to see more E.A.s and see teachers less stressed. There’s not enough of them already and they’re already stretched really thin.”
Asked what her prescription would be for the education system and the province’s desire to improve its finances, Burgess said she would look at ineffective programs elsewhere, such as the Ontario News Network, and the Education Quality Assessment Office (EQAO) and its standardized testing regimen.
“Why do we still have the EQAO when they’ve proven it doesn’t work? That’s $31 million — a lot of money that could be rerouted to something better.”
Burgess said the student organizers at NDSS weren’t allowed to post any details at school about the walkout, so they used the social media platform Instagram and word of mouth to get their word out. She was impressed by her peers’ response.
“I’m proud of them for being so peaceful and so civil, keeping our message really clear,” she said. “We’ve had people coming up and asking questions, being interested. It’s so exciting seeing people being so politically active.”
Burgess said while teachers weren’t officially allowed to support the walkout, they wore purple to show their support. She said students attended their classes and checked out to ensure their teachers knew where they were.
Moving forward, she hopes to keep the activism alive, stating the next move would be to set up a meeting with MPP Daryl Kramp to discuss the students’ collective concerns. Future student actions might be discussed too.
“We’re sending Ford a message: You can’t mess with our education system. I have a sister going into this mess. I don’t want her dealing with everything he’s proposing. It seems ridiculous to me,” Burgess said.
Added Mosgrove: “I definitely think this will turn some heads. This is not just our school, it’s 800 schools across the province. If 800 schools and over 100,000 students walking out at the same time doesn’t say anything at all, then honestly we might need to do more. I hope this will make (Ford) sit back and think ‘Is this a good idea?’”
Education minister Lisa Thompson did not appear moved by the demonstration, releasing a statement Thursday night that blamed teachers’ unions for condoning the mass walk out, which she termed a “political stunt.”