Staffing at school libraries across the province is declining, a trend that could affect children's ability to think critically about information, according to a report released by an education advocacy group.

The report by the group People for Education found 56 per cent of Ontario elementary schools in 2010 have at least one full- or part-time teacher-librarian, an accredited teacher who has library training. That's down from 80 per cent in the 1997/1998 school year, according to the report, which was released Monday morning.

Meanwhile, 66 per cent of secondary schools across the province have at least one teacher-librarian, down from 78 per cent in 2000/2001, when the group first started tracking data for high schools.

Teacher-librarians play an important role in helping children find information, evaluate and thinking critically about it and then applying it, said Annie Kidder, the executive director of the group in an interview.

"These kinds of skills that sort of help kids in what we are calling these days the knowledge economy are incredibly important," she said.

"And I think one of the things our study is saying is that we're kind of missing the boat here in terms of the loss of teacher librarians, and also in other ways in terms of the impact teacher-librarians have on students' attitudes towards reading and their levels of literacy."

The report cited a 2005 study carried out by Queen's University and People for Education that found the presence of trained library staff is correlated with a higher proportion of grade six students attaining the provincial standard in reading tests.

GTA staffing well above provincial average

The trend of diminished staffing levels is particularly pronounced in small communities — only 19 per cent of elementary schools in eastern Ontario and 10 per cent of elementary schools in northern Ontario have teacher-librarians.

In the Greater Toronto Area, on the other hand, 92 per cent of elementary schools have a teacher-librarian.

"Obviously in Ontario we've got a lot of very small schools. They're not going to be have teacher-librarians in them," she said. "But one of our recommendations is that we ensure that we really look at this aspect of learning and that all teachers have the support that they need."

The report recommends the province "support a leadership role for teacher-librarians" and train all teachers in information and technology education.

Windsor board plans library cut

NDP education critic Rosario Marchese blasted the government during question period in Queen's Park about the issue.

"Fewer students than ever have access to teacher-librarians and school libraries are closing left, right and centre," he said Monday morning.

Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky said the cuts happened under the watch of the previous Conservative government.

"Our government, on the other hand, has increased funding in education overall by 46 per cent, but certainly directly to libraries as well, because we see them as very important resources," she said.

The debate around library staffing at schools is a particularly contentious issue in Windsor, where the Windsor Essex Catholic board plans to close all of its school libraries next year.

Students in Windsor walked out of class  on Monday morning to protest the Catholic school board's decision.

The board is facing a $10-million budget cut next year. It lost 800 students last year and is projecting a similar loss next year.