Education minister touts province’s return to school plan as ‘one of the best’ in Canada

Gord Wyant/ Herald File Photo

Education Minister Gord Wyant called Saskatchewan’s Safe Schools Plan one of the best in the country while providing an update on how students, teachers and staff will return to school this fall.

Wyant spoke to the media Wednesday evening after the federal government announced $2-billion in education funding for Canadian schools. He also pushed back on criticism that his ministry’s response was too disorganized.

 “I think we have one of the best school opening plans in the country and I think it’s a mistake to think this planning just happened over the past couple of weeks,” he said. “Once we suspended in-class learning, the Ministry of Education and the Response Planning Team  (RPT) and others including Public Health, (have made) a dedicated effort to make sure that we have  a good back to school plan.”

Wyant added that he was comfortable with placing most of the planning at the division level. All school division plans have all been reviewed by the RPT, he explained, and the ministry is comfortable with them.

“We know that there will be challenges and we know that this will be an evolving situation, so as things go forward we will see some changes as to how that program will be delivered,”  he said.

 “I think we have a good set of levels in terms of how you move from one level to another,” he added. “We have four levels as you know and I won’t repeat what those levels are. It certainly lets the school divisions make the determination as to how they move between levels based on advice from Public Health. I think it is an excellent tool to insure that our students stay safe.”

Wyant said he was happy with the collaboration between provinces about back-to-school plans.

They want to ensure that funds are distributed equally through all school divisions. They will also try to assist with school divisions providing distance learning.

Copies of most school plan are available through their respective school division websites. The Prince Albert Roman Catholic School Division and Saskatchewan Rivers School Division have been updating their plans frequently.

On Wednesday, the Government of Canada announced that school divisions across the province will have access to additional funding. Saskatchewan is set to receive $74.9-million as a result of a new spending commitment.

This funding will be added to the $40 million in new education funding already committed by the province from the COVID contingency fund, and is in addition to the $40 million in funds available through school division savings. There will now be a combined $150-million available to the education sector.

Wyant said they were hoping the federal government would step in to help, just as they had with other sectors of the economoy.

“It was a welcome surprise from the Federal Government and certainly is going to be very helpful to address some of the concerns,” Wyant told reporters. “As we work with our sector partners to insure a safe return to school, we know that there will be increased costs associated with staffing, preparation and supplies.”

The province must send a report to the federal government in December outlining how they spent the money. The $2-billion payment will be made in two parts, the second of which won’t come until January 2021.

Wyant said both levels of government have similar goals.

“They want to make sure there is staff and PPE and supplies are available (and) they certainly continue to support the provinces position of a safe return to schools this year,” he said.

He explained that the timing was right because they already had an application process in place so the additional money will supplement what the province already has in place.

While application intakes will occur throughout the school year, the first intake closes by the end of Thursday. Wyant explained that there had only been two applications at the time of the press conference, but he expected an influx of them by the end of today. Wyant said they want to make sure the new funds are available on day one. Another intake will be available in about a month-and-a-half. Afterwards, funding will be handed out on a quarterly basis.

“Certainly the priority will be to insure a safe return to school on day one, but priority is going to be given to immunocompromised students to insure that they have enough resources for online learning, supplies, those kinds of things. So really the immediate needs on day one will be the priority of the funding and we will look at those applications,” Wyant said.

Applications will be reviewed by the Ministry of Education. The intake first opened when Premier Scott Moe the additional $40 million increase.

Wyant said the first shipment of masks  has been delivered to all 27 school divisions and is in addition to full-face shields the province obtained which will be made available for all staff.

The second shipment of masks is set to leave the supplier on Wednesday and will be delivered to school divisions during the first week of school.
Updates will be made to the Safe Schools Plan as necessary based on the advice of the Chief Medical Health Officer according to the release.

NDP thanks feds for bailing out Saskatchewan education sector

NDP Education critic Carla Beck welcomed the  federal funding announcement with a media statement on Wednesday. The Regina MP she said the moved bailed out the Sask. Party, who sof far had refused to commit adequate funding for a safe school reopening. She called on the provincial government to use the money to make class sizes smaller in order to minimize the risk of outbreaks.

“Despite having months to get the return-to-school plan right, Scott Moe and Gord Wyant kept insisting that no additional funding would be necessary to make schools safer for our kids during a pandemic – to the extent that they waited until far too late to even allocate funding from their own contingency fund. Despite the concerns raised by families, educators, and medical professionals, they did nothing to address class size as crucial weeks passed,” Beck said in a release.

“Today, Education Minister Gord Wyant has finally acknowledged that COVID-19 means additional costs for schools. He has been handed a lifeline for his failed back to school plan, but the clock is ticking – he must not let Saskatchewan families down again.”

Saskatchewan will receive $74.9 million –almost double the $40 million that the Premier allocated from the $200 million contingency fund. Beck said it took a public outcry to get the province to contribute more funds, and added that parents were still feeling “betrayed, stressed and frustrated” by the provincial response.

“Our classrooms are too crowded now because they were too crowded before,” she said.

“School divisions still aren’t sure what, if any, additional funding they will receive, or if the government will in fact claw back funding at the end of September if enrolment declines due to COVID-19.

“We can’t be satisfied with the status quo,” she added. “We must demand better, and that means a real plan to put this additional federal funding to work where it counts.”