Province announces funding approval on first day of school

Gord Wyant/ Herald File Photo

The Government of Saskatchewan announced $51 million in approved funding for classrooms for emergent, one-time expenses associated with a safe return to school on Tuesday, September 8, the first day students returned to class.

The funding is from the over $150 million in the COVID contingency fund for education from provincial, federal and school division savings.

“This significant investment will insure that our school divisions have the resources that they need to respond and plan for emergent items,” Minister of Education and Deputy Premier Gord Wyant said in a press conference.
Wyant opened by thanking all of those involved for their hard work since March including administrators, teachers and staff.

“Your efforts have not gone unnoticed and you will have all stepped up to learn protocols and processes and prepare your classrooms and your teachings to accommodate this exceptional time. There has been a lot of work done by everyone to make sure our schools are as safe as possible. And I again want to extend my personal thank you to everyone that has been engaged,” Wyant said.

Of the $51 million in approved funding, $41 million comes from provincial funding, and $10 million represents the expenditure of the remaining school division savings. The previous announcements stated that $40 million was available in school division savings.

“This funding is in recognition of one-time only funding requirements for COVID associated costs across the province with the $10 million in school savings this means a significant investment this fall in priority areas,” Wyant said.

Opposition NDP Education Critic Carla Beck explained that the funding was welcome but the timing was odd.

“With the back to school plan, I think it is off. The minister stated today that this money would go a long way to insure the safety of students, students are in the classroom today and this money I think is better spent, better allocated at least a month ago or two months ago when we were asking questions and when the school divisions were asking questions,” Beck said.

“I have great empathy because this is a difficult situation, no one has a road map for how to do this. But when you see the same things around the lessons we should have learned in March.”

She said that seeing the announcement on the morning of the first day back to school was frustrating as a parent and it should have been made a month ago.
“We are certainly grateful and appreciative that everyone has done their part to insure that numbers do remain low. We have also seen in the last month how quickly that can change and as the Minister said today there is reasonable expectation that we will see increased transmission as people move indoors.”

As a part of this new funding, 46 applications have been approved to provide new funding to school divisions, qualified independent schools and historical high schools. A list of divisions or qualified schools was not available from the Ministry of Education.
The funding approved $19.1 million for sanitization, which includes 191 staff, $6.0 million for equipment and furniture, $13.2 million for supports for immunocompromised students which includes 150 teachers and staff, $9.5 million for additional distance learning capacity which includes 102 teachers and staff and $4.0 million for technology upgrades.

A total of 443 custodial support, teachers and staff are expected to be hired. This is in addition to the more than 200 staff projected to be hired as a result of the increased funding in the 2020-21 Budget.
This totals 600 new teachers and staff, according to the government’s release.

Wyant explained that school divisions will be starting the process of working with that additional funding today.

“We will certainly be consulting with school divisions as we go to make sure that those positions are being filled with the funds that are being provided. So that will be an ongoing conversation that we will be having with school divisions but we expect to start the process today,” Wyant said.
The Ministry of Education has also allocated $10 million for PPE expenses, of which $2.3 million has been spent to date to procure 6 million masks for school divisions. The ministry will continue working with school divisions to determine PPE needs for the remainder of the school year. The central purchasing of PPE will continue to be done through vendors that were prequalified through a request for qualification process that was completed earlier this summer.

“Well we know that a number of school divisions have already taken steps to engage additional staff. Not just with respect to sanitation, but with respect to providing distance learning,” Wyant said.

“This additional funding will be able to provide the additional security that the school divisions need from those perspectives.

“We have spent $2.3 million on masks so far the majority of which have been received and have been distributed now. The balance of them will be distributed as we need them. There is an inventory currently being done with school divisions to see what their additional needs are and some school divisions have already purchased masks and shields using their own resources.”

Wyant explained that school divisions had already put together plans for additional expenditures around personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation. The first round of funding from the federal government’s announced funding has not been received.

“We wanted to make sure that those funds were available as quickly as possible. So I think school divisions have done a remarkable job in preparing for back to school to insure students and teachers are safe. This additional funding will certainly enhance their ability in a number of areas so we are quite pleased to see the investment the federal government has made.” Wyant said.

This round of funding will not be used to hire additional substitute teachers, he said.

“School divisions have budgets around substitute teachers and we really don’t know at this time what the demand will be on school divisions for substitute teachers. So we will continue to assess that as this moves forward,” Wyant said.

“I think this is one of those instances of recently foreseeable costs that are going to be asked of school divisions. I have heard from a number of substitute teachers already that they are fully booked for the first week. There have already been shortages of substitute teachers around the province,” Beck said.

The Ministry didn’t consider substitute teachers an immediate priority. The spending was based on priorities for the Ministry and school divisions. Wyant explained that they anticipate demand on substitute teachers but want to see how things progress.

Wyant explained that having the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation (STF) as part of the Education Response Planning Team (RPT) was productive but they can always work on their relationships.

“I know that there are teachers who are quite happy to be back in school today, a lot that are happy with the plans of the school divisions. But I think that the fact that the plans that have been prepared and the plans that have been approved by Public Health and by the RPT I think is indicative of a good working relationship between teachers,” Wyant said.

Wyant explained that the plans are flexible and they want to ensure that teachers and students return to school safely.

“Continuing to build relationships, continuing to enhance the relationships with all of our partners in education continues to be a priority of mine as Minister of Education,” Wyant said.

Beck explained that waiting to announce until the first day back and looking into additional teachers at this point defied logic. She added that the government’s inability to recognize flaws in their plan was not correct.

“I would hope that the Minister and the Premier would learn lessons from how this has gone so far. One of the things that I think is really important is to talk to school divisions and get that money out the door in a timely manner that isn’t as piecemeal as we have seen over the last several weeks, which has really caused a lot of sleepless nights for parents, for teachers, for everyone in the school divisions. I still think there is a long way to go,” Wyant said.

The province also announced a change in date for enrolment reporting divisions. Typically, operating funding for school divisions is confirmed after enrolments are submitted on September 30. In recognition of the exceptional circumstances this year, the Ministry of Education is delaying any consideration for the redistribution of grants once actual enrolments are known until January 29.

“This enrolment date change will provide school divisions with stability, regardless of actual enrolment, while this fall minimizing potential impacts on redistribution of division operating funds through decreases in enrolment,” Wyant explained.
According to the government, there is $64 million remaining in the COVID contingency fund for education. The next intake for school division funding applications will be on December 1.