TORONTO -- TORONTO -- Ontario's English Catholic teachers announced more strikes Tuesday as the education minister signalled flexibility on class sizes -- one of the most contentious issues in ongoing negotiations with the province's educators.

All four of the province's major teachers' unions have been staging strikes as contract talks with the government have made little progress. The teachers are all planning a joint, provincewide walkout on Friday.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association has agreed to meet with the government on Wednesday, but they are also planning more strikes if a deal can't be reached.

"We are ready to get back to the table, but the government needs to recognize that these discussions must be about protecting our world-renowned publicly funded education system," OECTA president Liz Stuart said in a statement.

"Catholic teachers have done our part to move these negotiations forward, but we cannot accept the government's agenda to take resources out of the classroom."

OECTA and the other unions representing secondary teachers are upset that the government announced last March it would increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28 and require students to take four e-learning courses to graduate.

Premier Doug Ford noted Tuesday the government has partly backed off on both issues. In recent months, Education Minister Stephen Lecce has offered to instead increase average high school class sizes to 25 and require two online learning courses.

"We've been reasonable," Ford said in the legislature. "We've made significant moves (at) the table and priority number 1 again is to make sure that kids get back into the classroom."

Lecce said Tuesday he would rather make further moves on class sizes than on compensation for teachers.

"So in a binary choice, I'd rather see the students be better off, which is why I've made the case now for many weeks, now for many months, that our priority is investments in schools, investments in classrooms and keeping public education strong in this province -- not in enhancements for pay," he said.

"We want to make sure that we find innovative ways to reduce classroom sizes, keep them as low as possible."

All of the teachers' unions are asking for around two per cent in annual salary increases, while the government won't budge beyond offering one per cent. It passed legislation last year capping wage hikes for all public sector workers at one per cent for three years. The teachers' unions and several others are fighting the law in court, arguing it infringes on collective bargaining rights.

Elementary teachers say their key issues include guaranteeing the future of full-day kindergarten, securing more funding to hire special education teachers, and maintaining seniority hiring rules.

Their union has been looking for a guarantee that the full-day kindergarten model will be protected after the previous education minister opened the door to changes. The government has made that commitment in writing, but the union has said it was not presented in language that could be included in a collective agreement and was instead shared with the union in a letter away from the bargaining table.

Lecce said Tuesday they were one in the same.

"There's tons of precedents for signed letters within collective agreements," he said.

The union representing teachers in the French system will also bargain with the government Wednesday.

Public schools across Ontario will be closed this Friday, Feb. 21 as elementary, secondary, Catholic and French teachers band together for a joint strike in a bid to ramp up pressure on the government.

The Catholic teachers' rotating strikes next week are set to start Monday in the Toronto, Huron-Superior, Niagara, Northwest, St. Clair, and Waterloo Catholic boards. On Tuesday, teachers will strike at the Durham, Halton, Huron-Perth, Kenora, Nipissing-Parry Sound, Ottawa, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic boards.

No strike is planned for Wednesday, as it is Ash Wednesday -- a Christian holy day marking the first day of Lent. But on Thursday, the union will target the Algonquin and Lakeshore, Brant Haldimand Norfolk, Bruce-Grey, Dufferin-Peel, Northeastern, Renfrew County, Simcoe Muskoka, and Superior North Catholic boards.

Friday will see teachers walk out at the Hamilton-Wentworth, London, York, Wellington, Windsor-Essex, and Eastern Ontario Catholic school boards.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2020.