A labour arbitrator recently awarded damages to Catholic secondary school teachers after finding that a school board did not provide the teachers with requisite daily preparation time in accordance with the collective agreement. In the decision, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association v Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, 2022 CanLII 105333 (ON LA), the arbitrator found that the teachers did receive their full prep time each two week period, but it was not received on a daily basis, as required by the collective agreement.

Article 14.01 F of the collective agreement provided as follows:

F. Non teaching time, exclusive of “on call time”, shall be used to provide full time teachers with a minimum of one half of an unassigned teaching period per day, for the purposes of preparation, planning, evaluation and other professional activities.

Prior to COVID, the respondent school board structured its secondary school year into two semesters, with four 75-minute periods of instruction per day. Secondary teachers were generally scheduled to teach three periods of instruction per day, with the fourth period being prep time.

However, as a result of COVID, the school board adopted a “modified” quadmester schedule for the 2021-2022 school year in which students took, on a weekly rotating basis, two courses per day (150 minutes in duration) for the first week, followed by two other classes in the second week. Correspondingly, teachers taught two classes a day (300 minutes of instructional time with no prep time) for a week followed by a week where they would teach only one class per day (150 minutes of instructional time) with 150 minutes of prep time for the balance of the day. After a two-week cycle, the teacher would have received their full entitlement to prep time—albeit one week would have none while the full allotment would be squeezed into the second week. The modified quadmester schedule ended February 1, 2022.

It was agreed that quadmestering was required as a result of COVID. The parties took no issues with same. The dispute was over the prep time entitlement.

The teachers and their union were not consulted or advised about the quadmester schedule and its impact on their prep time until the school year began, or shortly before then. The arbitrator rejected the school board’s arguments that it acted reasonably or in good faith or that it should be given some latitude because of the pandemic.

The arbitrator highlighted that one of the purposes of prep time is to provide teachers with daily respite and to relieve them for a period of time of their obligation to provide instruction; they suffered this loss irrespective of the fact that they received their full prep time entitlement after every two-week period.

The arbitrator ultimately held that the school board violated the collective agreement and that a declaration was not sufficient.

The arbitrator awarded teachers one quarter of the dollar value of prep time in the week where none was scheduled. The arbitrator held that this was an appropriate balance between compensating teachers for losing part of their daily prep time in breach of the collective agreement, and the fact that all the prep time was ultimately allocated (albeit every two weeks).

Take away

School boards should ensure that appropriate consultation takes place before any scheduling changes are made, and that any changes do not violate the terms of any existing collective agreements. School boards require evidence of such considerations to establish that they acted reasonably in such circumstances, even when living through a pandemic.