As students across the province head back to school — though not until Wednesday in Toronto — Education Minister Stephen Lecce said they should look forward to “the beginning of a return to a normal school experience” after the chaos of lockdowns and online learning because of COVID-19.

“This new school year marks the beginning of a return to a normal school experience with students in classrooms, for the full school year, with the full school experience,” he said in a statement marking the first day of classes.

“That means that after two years of pandemic disruptions, students are back in normal, enjoyable school settings, including extracurriculars like sports and field trips that we know are so important to student success.”

He also said he is “fully committed to a stable return to class without disruption through to the end of June” and thanked students, staff and families for their “continued hard work.”

Lecce’s comments come as the government, school boards and education unions continue negotiating after all contracts expired at the end of August.

There is no sign of job action in the near future, although CUPE — which represents 55,000 support staff in a number of boards across the province — has scheduled a strike vote and has asked for the help of a conciliator at the bargaining table.

Lecce has said he would take any action to ensure kids remain in the classroom, and has not ruled out using back-to-work legislation if necessary.

Teacher unions are not as far ahead in their talks, and leaders have previously told the Star they expect labour peace for the remainder of this year at the least.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, spoke outside Toronto’s Earl Haig Secondary School, saying “the last thing anyone wants to go through is another round of school closures and more last-minute decisions, with some people in, some people out, all of it causing lots of confusion. We have and will continue to call on the government for improved health and safety measures.”

She said while the government is “touting the need for stability, for children to be in the classroom, yet in the same breath they are instilling fear in parents and students by villainizing unions and educators, saying our contract negotiations were going to cause disruptions to the school year before it had even begun.”

Littlewood added that “students do need stability. That’s one thing I can agree on with the government. Students need to make-up the learning loss caused by COVID-19 and this government’s mishandling of the pandemic.”

The secondary teachers’ union also represents some education workers, who like those represented by CUPE are typically the lowest paid in the system.

The government has offered CUPE workers who earn less than $40,000 a year a two per cent per year increase over four years, and those earning more a 1.25 per cent annual raise.

CUPE has said its members earn an average of $39,000 a year, but that includes part-time workers.

Littlewood said education workers in her union earn about $45,000 a year, and “a 1 per cent or 1.25 wage increase is not going to cut it. Unsurprisingly, many school boards are now facing staffing shortages.”

She said “we have seen what underfunding and understaffing has done to the healthcare system under this government, and public education is likely next.”

Ontario teachers earn an average of about $95,000 a year. Extracurricular activities remain voluntary.

In a memo to school boards sent out Friday, obtained by the Star, Lecce said that “students deserve a full return to normalcy in the classroom, for the entire school year. Child and youth experts, including the Children’s Health Coalition, recognize the importance of in-person schooling to students’ physical and mental well-being.”

He noted the province’s funding for tutoring and student mental health, as well as additional staff for the school year to address student learning loss during the pandemic.

“A key priority in our (back-to-school plan) is ensuring students return to in-person learning uninterrupted for the entirety of the school year, with the full school experience, in alignment with advice from Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health,” he wrote.

He also noted that high schoolers will once again have to complete 40 hours of volunteer work in order to graduated — that had been cut during the pandemic — but said “flexible measures will continue to be available for the 2022-23 school year for all students,” and that passing the Grade 10 literacy test will also be required once again.

Lecce also said that final exams may also resume, after many boards decided to forego them given pandemic restrictions and concerns.

This fall, all Grade 9 classes will be destreamed, meaning students of all abilities will learn together. The ministry has provided more than $11 million for this, but teacher unions have said more support is needed.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy