Teacher unions are warning of mass job losses in the wake of the Progressive Conservative government’s overhaul of the education system, which introduces larger class sizes and mandatory online courses in high schools.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced that the government is lifting the caps on class sizes in elementary and high schools across the province, returning to a system of averages.

The biggest change will be felt in high school classrooms, where sizes will be increased from 22 students per teacher to 28 students. It will be up to school boards to maintain the average class size of 28 students.

High school students will also be required to take four e-learning courses as part of their 30 required credits in order to obtain their diploma – courses that will be centralized away from local school boards.

“Our end goal is clear – we want students to be better prepared and we want students to be protected, but I also want to make clear today that we’re protecting teachers too. Our planned changes to class sizes will happen gradually over four years” Thompson said.

While Thompson stressed that “not one” teaching job would be lost as a result of the newly-announced changes, the government wouldn’t say how many positions would be eliminated through attrition.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) estimates that the changes will lead to a 20 per cent cut to personnel.

“Across the high school education system in Ontario, we’re talking about over 5,500 teachers, we’re taking about over 3,600 members,” OSSTF President Harvey Bischoff told CTV News Toronto.

Thompson says the move will eliminate nearly one per cent of the $25 billion education budget in the first year that the changes are implemented, and the ministry warned that as a result, funding for school operations “would also be adjusted.”

In the meantime, concerns are being raised about what the changes will mean for students’ quality of education.

Ontario NDP’s education critic Marit Stiles said she believes the changes will reduce resources and overwhelm teachers, hurting one-on-one attention teachers provide students.

“I think what we’re going to see unfortunately are fewer teachers ultimately in our classes, that was quite clear coming out of this announcement,” Stiles said after the news conference.

“There are going to be fewer teachers in the classes, less one-on-one time for our students, fewer other education workers. The education system is also about educational assistants, ECE’s, caretakers, all those other people that make our classes safe and supportive for students.”

Other unions believe the change in class sizes will have a ripple effect on the education system.

“It’s very concerning when you see class sizes go up. We’re afraid that opens up to more school closures and more mega schools and more mergers,” CUPE Local 1022 Laura Walton said.

Former Premier Kathleen Wynne also expressed concern over what the removal of class limits would mean for non-compulsory courses such as drama, music, and art.

“The class sizes in the mandatory classes will get huge and principals will get really stretched in terms of being able to offer the other options,” Wynne says. “I’ve very worried about making cuts on the backs of students.

Parents can opt out of sex-ed curriculum

The Progressive Conservative government also announced that Ontario parents can officially opt their children out of the new sex-ed curriculum.

Beginning in September, the ministry of education will provide online modules for parents to teach their children sensitive topics on sexual health “whenever their child is ready.”

“Mom and dad are the experts on their children,” Education Minister Lisa Thompson said during a morning news conference.

“We heard from parents and they told us that some concepts were being taught way too early. So, we’re going to raise the age on some concepts, but I assure you here today that we are going to keep them all in the curriculum and we’re going to respect mom and dad by providing an opt out so parents can be the ultimate decision makers on their kids health education.”

Thompson criticized the former Liberal government for the "controversial" previous curriculum, which she said was implemented “without adequately consulting parents.”

“Public trust has deteriorated,” she said.

The government will delay some of the most controversial topics in the sex-ed curriculum until students reach Grades 7 and 8, including sexting, contraception, intercourse, and sexually transmitted infections.

However, gender identity and gender expression will only be taught in the latter half of the Grade 8 school year, as will sexting, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections

Grade 2 students will be taught about body image, bullying and online safety.

In Grades 4 to 6, students will be taught about puberty, sexual reproduction and sexual orientation while also learning new concepts, such as consent and mental health.

If they choose, parents will be able to opt out of every portion of the health and physical education at any time, between Grades 2 and 8. Parents will also be given access to the curriculum online to teach their child portions of the program at their own pace.

Thompson said all of the information included in the previous health and physical education curriculum will be included in the new syllabus.