Alberta government redirects school funding into COVID-19 response; NDP calls move ‘unconscionable’

Click to play video: 'Alberta cuts $128M in K-12 education funding to boost COVID-19 response'
Alberta cuts $128M in K-12 education funding to boost COVID-19 response
WATCH: As many as 25,000 educational assistants and other support workers will be laid off as the Alberta government looks to boost its response to COVID-19. As Cami Kepke reports, teachers are concerned special needs students will be affected – Mar 29, 2020

The UCP has announced it will be redirecting $128 million dollars of funding initially slotted for K-12 schools in the province into Alberta’s COVID-19 response, following the cancellation of all in-person classes on March 15.

The funding that’s being adjusted would have been used for transportation, substitute teachers and educational assistants, all of which is being reduced while in-person classes remain cancelled, a news release said Saturday.

“COVID-19 has changed both how we provide student learning, and the operational needs of the education system,” a statement from Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said.

“I want to stress that this is a temporary arrangement as schools focus on at-home learning.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on COVID-19 school closures: ‘We are all in this together’'
Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on COVID-19 school closures: ‘We are all in this together’
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The decision on what positions will be laid off or cut will be made by individual schools, said Colin Aitchison, the press secretary for the office of the minister of education. The UCP did not have an estimate of how many positions the funding changes would affect.

“School authorities will look at the specific funding impact to them, and then determine the best course of action,” he said in an emailed statement to Global News.

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“Any staff who are affected by this temporary funding adjustment are encouraged to apply for the federal government’s enhanced employment insurance program, as well as other support programs for Canadian workers,” Aitchison said.

The UCP said that previous levels of funding will be restored once in-person classes resume.

NDP condemns move

The NDP said Saturday that the decision would push “tens of thousands of Albertans into unemployment amid a deadly pandemic.”

In a news release, the official Opposition said that at last count there were over 16,000 educational assistants in the province.

“This is pure cruelty,” Sarah Hoffman, NDP Opposition Critic for Education said in a statement. “Jason Kenney is doing harm to students with complex needs, their families, and to tens of thousands of Alberta workers.”

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The NDP said this announcement comes just days after the UCP said it would be going through with funding cuts to post-secondary schools in the province, also leading to mass layoffs.

“Instead of standing by these hardworking Albertans, as he has urged private employers to do, Jason Kenney is pushing thousands of people onto a massively overwhelmed federal unemployment insurance program,” Hoffman said.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley responded to the funding announcement on Twitter Saturday, calling the move “unconscionable.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees also responded Saturday, saying the UCP’s decision was “heartless and thoughtless” and would have a “devastating effect.”

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“It seems very dismissive,” CUPE Alberta president Rory Gill said in an interview with Global News. Gill added that CUPE had not heard of the layoff decision until the government announced it midday Saturday. He said he expects the number of workers laid off will be “in the thousands.”

“We understand this is an unprecedented crisis. But this decision from the government was not expected,” Gill said.

CUPE represents over 130,000 workers in elementary and secondary schools across Canada.

‘This is shocking news’: School divisions respond

Several school divisions responded to Saturday’s announcement, saying that the funding announcement was “tough news.”

In a letter to all employees, Calgary Catholic Schools chief superintendent Dr. Bryan Szumlas said that he was told by the government that school authorities would have to begin providing notice to non-essential support staff and educational assistants, with the expectation that their services will not continue past April.

“As you can imagine this is shocking news. CCSD is a family and any layoffs are painful,” said Szumlas.

“I must highlight that Calgary Catholic’s support staff are amazing and this is only temporary. We will need you back when we return back to school.”

Edmonton Public School Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said that her division was “blind sided” by the decision, which it believes will negatively affect student learning.

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“Some of our students who have special needs for example, we know EAs for example provide great support and great service to some of those kids.

“Certainly I have concerns about how are we going to continue to support some of those learners.”

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