NDP, STF say return to school can only work if properly funded

Government says it will work with school divisions to determine what resources are necessary

Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation president Patrick Maze speaks in Prince Albert on Nov. 1, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The provincial government’s plan to return students to their classrooms in September can’t put additional work on teachers, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation says.

Saskatchewan’s Education Minister, Gord Wyant, announced on Tuesday that the province plans to open schools as of September 1. What those guidelines look like, or who will be responsible for ensuring they’re in place, has yet to be determined.

“People like the caretakers in schools and the maintenance staff should be responsible for making sure it’s safe, and teachers should be there to teach,” STF president Patrick Maze said.

“We’ll have to make sure … divisions aren’t trying to offload a lack of funding onto their teaching staff.”

NDP education critic Carla Beck was more unequivocal. She’s worried that without proper funding, existing problems of class size and composition will be made even worse.

“Last fall we went around to many school divisions in the province. It did not matter … where we were,” she said.

“What we heard from every school division was before COVID, our classroom teachers and staff in our classrooms were feeling overworked and under resourced. There is no additional capacity, I would suggest, to dump more on their plate.”

There is also the cost of appropriate PPE and extra cleaning equipment to consider.

Maze said it will be up to the province to ensure proper funding is in place to ensure teachers’ safety.

“We know that many of our schools are at capacity or over capacity. We want to make sure that proper social distancing can be practiced,” he said.

“We also want to be sure that schools will have the budgets to be able to afford proper PPE to make sure teachers and staff are safe.”

Beck said that’s the role of the provincial government.

“Not only the cost of PPE and extra cleaning equipment, we’re calling on any additional staffing needs, those resources, to be provided by the provincial government.”

The situation of teachers will be exacerbated by an increased learning gap. While some kids have been lucky enough to have access to good distance learning through the pandemic, not every household has been able to ensure kids are following through with their remote schoolwork. That’s especially true in households with kids who have higher needs, or where there are younger children who need more attention. Parents, in some cases, have found it difficult to balance working from home and home-schooling.

“The gap between those who have access to technology and have parents at home, who are able to guide them in their online learning, or who have the time — that’s something we raised earlier during the pandemic,” Beck said.

“That gap we already know exists for children, and that gap we know often gets worse in the summer. We’re going to have children who are out of school and without instruction or considerable guidance for months by the time children get back to school.”

Beck said this is something teachers are equipped and trained to do, but it does mean there will be increased work and costs.

“We need to make sure we set our classrooms up for success in the fall. That starts with clear guidelines. It also has to include a clear commitment from the minister of education that they will fund those increased costs.”

For his part, Wyant said Tuesday that those conversations will happen with school divisions.

“We’re certainly going to be giving some thought to what additional resources may be available,” he said.

“We know there are going to be some additional costs school divisions are going to have to shoulder with delivering these new protocols. We’re going to assess what those are in consultation with the various school divisions and with the ministry to talk about how we’re going to address those additional needs.”

Wyant said his government remains committed to properly funding education. He touted last year’s budget, which was the largest for education delivery in the province’s history.

“To the extent that there are going to be additional resources that are going to be needed, we’re going to have to have conversations with the school divisions to determine exactly what that will be.”

That worries Beck.

She, and other critics, argue that while the dollar amount may have been high, per-student education funding has still not returned to levels seen before a 2017 cut to the education budget.

She hasn’t seen much relief so far this year.

“We had a chance to look at the spending estimates before the legislature was suspended. That will not provide the resources that school boards need.”

Local school divisions planning for next year

While exactly what September will look like has yet to be determined, local school divisions have been doing their best to plan ahead.

“We have built-in and we have accounted for what we think will happen in the fall and how school and things like that will work,” Saskatchewan Rivers School Division education director Robert Bratvold told the Herald.

“We have also built some flexibility into our budget to be able o respond to those unknown or unpredictable kinds of impacts.”

The school division passed its budget Monday. Unlike last year, the budget was balanced and didn’t need to dip into reserves.

Bratvold said about 70 per cent of the budget is made up of salaries.

Still, the division is planning for any eventuality.

“We’re as prepared as we can be, and knowing that a budget is certainly a guideline and a playbook. If there are unforeseen things, we would consider adjusting expenditures and things appropriately.”

Over at the Catholic division, the budget is expected to be passed on June 15. Still, the division has made some preparations. They’ve put out a tender to purchase laptops and tablets, and have begun installing plexiglass shields at school offices.

“We, as teachers, want to be in the classroom with our students. We think that is the best way to teach and learn. We do know that we were forced into a remote learning procedure because of COVID-19 and so what we are looking for is everything in between,” director of education Lorel Trumier said in late May.

“We are also working proactively at perhaps a blended learning approach for the fall so that when we are in school we will be there to help our students with the teacher in front of them and when we are not we still have the means to support our students via remote learning video or remote learning lectures, notes and activities that our students can engage in,” she said.

 The division suspects next year’s school year could involve many modes of teaching and learning.

Like the public school division, Trumier said the Catholic schools are planning for any eventuality.

Province-wide, Maze said the STF will be watching closely.

“We’ll be depending on divisions as the employer to make sure there are safe workspaces and ultimately government to be funding the employers that they’re’ not trying to skimp or get by without safety being the utmost concern,” he said.

— with files from Michael Oleksyn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Albert Daily Herald