While many of Alberta’s school districts are expressing gratitude for $2 billion from Ottawa to help prepare for safe re-entry into schools as restrictions remain in place because of COVID-19, some say the support should be coming from the provincial government instead.
“Classes for Edmonton Public Schools begin next week, and our board has been advocating to the province for additional funding to support the safest return to school possible,” EPSB chair Trisha Estabrooks said in a statement.
“Today’s federal announcement of $2 billion to support schools across the country is appreciated.
“However, I want to be very clear — education is a provincial responsibility, and we are disappointed we have not seen a significant investment for school re-entry from our own government,” Estabrooks said.
“We do not have details on what this funding means for our division and our students. I strongly encourage the provincial government to involve school boards in conversations around how these funds will be used and distributed. We know our schools and students, and their needs, best,” she added.
A spokesperson for Alberta’s ministry of education said the province appreciates the funding from the federal government “as it demonstrates how all levels of government can support the return to in-class learning across Canada.”
Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the minister of education, explained that since the announcement was sudden, Alberta Education is currently reviewing the program details to determine how to distribute the funding to school authorities “quickly and effectively.”
“This funding, approximately $262 million, is in addition to the support and resources the province has already provided,” he added.
“This includes an overall increase of roughly $120 million in school authority funding for the upcoming school year, $250 million in accelerated capital maintenance and renewal funding, and a $10 million investment in PPE for our schools, which includes reusable masks for students and staff, along with face shields, thermometers and hand sanitizer. We have also approved the use of $363 million in board reserves for COVID-19 related costs.”
“Ensuring the safety and well-being of our staff and students continues to be our priority. We remain committed to ensuring school authorities have the resources they need to ensure a safe return to school. We will also continue to work with Dr. Hinshaw and our education system and will adjust our provincial re-entry plan as necessary,” Aitchison said.
The money announced by the federal government on Wednesday is on top of $19 billion Ottawa has already promised to help provinces and territories cope with the ongoing impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on their economies and health-care systems.
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Education is not a federal responsibility and provinces are responsible for their own school reopening plans, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday, but he said he also wanted to calm the fears of parents by ensuring the provinces have additional resources to make schools safe.
“Over the past week or so I’ve heard from so many Liberal MPs, so many parents across the country who are still extremely worried about how that reopening is going to go,” Trudeau said.
“We’ve seen the provinces put forward plans for that reopening and they are confident that they are doing what is necessary, but parents were still concerned. So we said, ‘Let’s give the provinces even more resources to be able to do everything that is necessary to keep our kids safe.”’
Read more: ‘There is just no way to do this’: Teachers worry over school reopening plans amid coronavirus
The money will flow through the new Safe Return to Class Fund — specifically for school reopenings.
Ottawa is also providing an additional $112 million to help schools in First Nations communities with safe reopening plans.
Provinces and territories will have flexibility to spend the money as they see fit to bolster their efforts to ensure schools can reopen this fall as safely as possible, Trudeau said.
The superintendent of the Calgary Catholic School District welcomed the news.
“We are really appreciative of the federal announcement of the $2 billion being invested in provinces,” Bryan Szumlas told Global News.
“This morning I received a phone call from the deputy minister. Alberta is receiving about $263 million, distributed to all school jurisdictions.
“It’ll be put to good use, paying for our guest teachers and even more cleaning in our schools to help with transportation and so forth so that’s really good news,” Szumlas said.
In Lethbridge, public school authorities are waiting on more details regarding how the federal funds will be distributed to school divisions in Alberta.
“The division welcomes any extra funding to assist in both preparation for the 2020/2021 school year and to address challenges that may emerge throughout the first few months of school opening,” a spokesperson told Global News.
READ MORE: Alberta K-12 students to head back to classroom this fall
Edmonton Catholic Schools was also pleased with the funding but is awaiting details on what it would mean for the division’s classrooms.
“We are pleased that the federal government has recognized education as an important investment by providing additional funding for school divisions to support a safe return to class. Providing a safe environment for students and staff is our first priority as we plan for classes to resume on Sept. 2,” board chair Sandra Palazoo said.
“A high-quality faith-filled education is paramount as students will shape the future of our cities, provinces and country.
“We look forward to receiving the details on how this funding will translate into additional supports for schools and for a successful return to class,” she added.
Read more: Alberta Teachers’ Association requests school year delay at meeting with education minister
The Alberta Teachers’ Association is advocating that the funds be allocated to the seven key priorities to improve classroom safety it previously outlined.
“First and foremost, funding should be focused on significant staffing needs,” ATA President Jason Schilling said.
“More teachers are needed to reduce class sizes, custodians are needed to ensure that ongoing sanitization occurs throughout the school day, more EAs are needed to help students with learning needs and hygiene.
“As a result of COVID-19, schools also have increased needs for substitute teachers, counsellors, public health nurses and administrative support,” he said.
Beyond staffing, Schilling said that PPE, cleaning and hygiene supplies and HVAC and air purification systems will require funding supports.