Premier Jason Kenney offered new details on Wednesday about why his government announced temporary layoffs in Alberta’s education system over the weekend, explaining that the decision was made after a number of school boards told the government they were planning to lay off staff.
The layoffs were announced in a news release on Saturday. The government said some staff were not needed any longer as the education system pivots to online learning after schools were closed on March 16 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government says it expects to save $128 million through the layoffs and that the money can be used as part of its pandemic response instead.
“The minister of education was contacted after the closure of the schools by many school boards and superintendents across the province, saying there were large numbers of staff and employees who were no longer working,” Kenney said at a news conference about the province’s pandemic response on Wednesday. “In particular, they indicated school bus contractors, many support services and many teaching assistants.
“Several of those school boards indicated to the minister of education that they intended to lay those workers off as they were not working any longer, which is generally what sadly happened across the economy as there have been so many shutdowns.”
Kenney said that with the support of cabinet, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange decided that as a result, “there should be a uniform position across the province.”
“If the school boards were to have done those layoffs themselves, they would have kept that budget but not spent it on staff,” the premier said. “Our view was that school board expenditures are going down markedly right now but provincial expenditures are going up by billions and billions of dollars.
“So while the school board expenses were going down because of a lack of work, and they were going to do these layoffs in many cases — perhaps not all — we saw our expenses going up by billions of dollars.”
Some in the education system have estimated the layoffs, which affect substitute teachers, school bus drivers, educational assistants who work with special-needs students and others, amount to more than 20,000 workers.
Kenney said the crash in oil prices, the COVID-19 crisis and more broad economic factors are forcing his government to need to watch its finances more closely than Alberta has in decades. He also said he expects his government to “blow past” the $50 million it initially earmarked for emergency isolation payments amid the pandemic and needs to find money somewhere.
“The concept of paying for folks who aren’t working is very difficult with the billions of additional dollars we’re spending and the revenue floor falling out from underneath us,” he told reporters. “I’m troubled for anybody who’s been laid off or lost their income as a result of this crisis.”
Kenney added that tens of thousands of small businesses have closed and hundreds of thousands of private sector workers have been laid off since the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold and that they don’t know if they will still have a business or work once the crisis recedes.
“These folks in the government and education sector will, I think, almost without exception, be coming back to jobs when the schools reopen,” he said.
“They have that certainty and they also have access to extraordinary supports for income that are being provided by both the federal and provincial governments.”
Two weeks before announcing the layoffs, LaGrange had pledged to keep full education funding in place for the rest of the school year. However, she later said the “pandemic has changed how our education system functions.”
NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley has said educational assistants are especially important while schools are closed as they are needed to help students with learning challenges adapt to online learning.
“They’re working every day to provide routine and support and to ensure that these kids don’t fall behind,” she said earlier this week.
“With respect to educational assistants, we suspended the schools on March 16 and they are going to get paid until the end of April — April 30 — so that is six weeks,” Kenney said Wednesday. “If they are active, if they are assisting teachers with online education, they can do so with compensation through to the end of this month. Or if they’re not working, that’s six weeks notice, which is six weeks more than most people in the private sector who have been laid off.
“I would also point out that the contractors, the bus drivers, the janitorial workers and the teaching assistants and the substitute teachers would not be working in the months of July and August in any event… the situation of those folks is much less grave than many others in Alberta.”
Roger Clarke, superintendent of Prairie Rose School Division in southern Alberta, said his staff crunched the numbers and found savings in places where they will not have to spend while schools are closed.
“We did not have to have mass layoffs across our division,” said Clarke.
Clarke said typically schools would be spending money on replacement staff for sick teachers.
He said each principal in the district was asked to look at the books and find savings. Clarke added support staff were also asked if they’d be willing to be laid off.
“We had a number of our staff members that said, ‘Sure, I can be laid off.'”
Clarke said those staff are eligible for benefits.
“It’s temporary, so they know that.”
“We were able to slim down and not lay off a whole bunch of people… we have 39 individuals that have said we’d be able to go.”
Kenney said even while schools are closed, teachers, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, mental health workers and physical therapists “will continue to provide specialized supports and services for students.”
He also said funding aimed at supporting special needs students “continues to flow to school authorities so they can tailor their services to continue supporting the most vulnerable students.”
–With files from The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett and Kendra Slugoski, Global News.