Ever wondered why course selection was so different for this school year? Why are classes smaller this year, and why are there so many classes in X Block? The answer lies in a conflict that goes all the way back to 2002, between the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Government of British Columbia.

In 1987, through a series of strikes and bargains, the BCTF gained the authority to set class size and the composition of teachers rather than the government doing it. However, in 2002, the BC Liberal government, under Gordon Campbell, passed legislation that removed the BCTF’s authority to set class size and composition. Another legislation a few months later limited the teachers’ right to strike by designating them as an ‘essential service.’

After a series of BCTF strikes over the following years, some legal and some illegal, both laws still stood. But in 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of health-care unions against the BC government, which had designated them an ‘essential service’ too. The BCTF saw similarities to their current predicament, and launched a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of BC against both 2002 laws.

In 2010, the court case began, and over the next five years, the battle was fought, with both parties appealing decisions not in their favour to a higher court until the case escalated all the way to the highest level. On November 10, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada took only 15 minutes of debate before ruling that the 2002 laws were unconstitutional, seven justices against and two in favour. The BCTF, from this moment forward, have had control of class size and composition once more. But what happens now, and how does this affect Riverside students?

Students returning to Riverside may be aware that this year, most of their classes are slightly smaller, doubly so in science and tech ed classes. Nearly 16% of students at Riverside are designated special needs or have an individual educational plan, which means that in the average class of 30 students, at least five could be designated. Under the new class size rules, any classroom with more than two designated students must be reduced in size by two. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but reducing most classes by two students can have far-reaching effects in a school as large as Riverside. With smaller classes, comes the need for more space, and there aren’t enough blocks to teach them all with just A, B, C, and D, so many courses have been moved to X block.

Principal Anthony Ciolfitto had mixed feelings on the subject. “From a teacher’s perspective, their workload is better, and they have a more manageable class size to teach. The ruling is also better from the student’s perspective because their needs are met better with smaller classes. But in organizational terms, it’s much more challenging, because it means less flexibility for student course changes and more pressure on space because there aren’t enough classrooms,” said Ciolfitto.

This has resulted in a great many more classes required for the same number of students. Riverside has chosen to accommodate this by opening X-block classes, and restricting students’ ability to change their courses after their selection forms are submitted. In addition, dozens of new teachers have been hired to make up for the sudden increase in classes.

Riverside’s union representative, Mr. Robert Colombo, echoed the sentiment. “[The ruling] had the effect of needing many more classrooms across the province, leading to a scramble for new teachers and rooms. It has led the province to hire many new teachers, leading to a shortage for ToC (Teacher on Call) lists. At Riverside itself, we were already near [our classroom] capacity before the court decision,” said Colombo. Indeed, the ruling has had a big impact on the provincial budget, as $300-400 million dollars will be needed to hire the new teachers needed.

Mr. Colombo sees more change on the horizon, though. He says that one of the problems with the ruling is that it restored the rules from before the 2002 laws went into effect, rather than having them updated immediately. “The problem with implementing contractual language from 18 years ago is that the landscape of education has changed drastically. It will need to be changed in the next contract negotiation to better reflect the needs of our current education system,” said Colombo. The next round of contract negotiations between the BCTF and the government of BC is scheduled for 2019.