Edmonton·Updated

Alberta allows schools to decide how to spend $250M in federal COVID-19 funding

The province will allow schools to decide how best to spend most of $262 million in federal funding to help with COVID-19 related costs.

Funding aims to help schools reopen safely as COVID-19 numbers climb

A classroom prepared for the new school year at Lillian Osborne High School in southwest Edmonton. (David Bajer/CBC)

The Alberta government will allow schools to decide how best to spend most of $262 million in federal funding to help with COVID-19 related costs.

The province will distribute the majority of the funding, $250 million, to school authorities based on a per-student model, and it must be used to support additional COVID-19 related costs, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said at a news conference Wednesday.

The funding can be used for staffing, adapting learning spaces, personal protective equipment, cleaning, supports for special needs students and online learning and teacher training.

The remaining $12 million will be used to support schools seeing a large influx in enrolment due to increased demand for their online learning programs. 

"School authorities said that they wanted as much flexibility as possible to use this funding in ways that are most important for their schools and communities," LaGrange said.

The federal government will transfer the money to the province in two phases, once in September and once later in the school year.

The Calgary Board of Education and Edmonton Public Schools, the province's two largest school districts, are receiving $44.5 million and $37.4 million respectively. 

Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, urged school districts to spend the money on creating smaller class sizes.

"We have classes where we have let's say 35 kids in the class," Schilling said Wednesday.

"Reduce that down by eight kids. You take out an entire row of desks out of a classroom, that will maximize physical distancing. And it's a significant change, and it's one that's reasonable and obtainable." 

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Schilling said districts could also use the funding for more custodial staff to help keep schools safe, and to hire back educational assistants to help students who have opted to continue online learning this fall. 

Wing Li, communications director for Support Our Students Alberta and an Edmonton parent, also wants school districts to use the money to cut class sizes, and she wishes LaGrange had made that a priority 

"We wanted to see that commitment because that acknowledges that it's the first line of defence for mitigating or reducing the transmission within physical schools," Li said. 

Money not enough to reduce class sizes

Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton Public School board, said trustees will take time to think about how to use the money. But she said $37 million won't be enough to bring class sizes down to cohorts of 12 to 15 students. 

"I know it may sound like a lot, but in reality, that's less than four per cent of Edmonton Public's operating budget," she said.

"And so while we appreciate this money, I will remind people that in fact, education is a provincial responsibility. And so the board of trustees has been very vocal in asking our provincial government to step up and to spend the necessary money to see the necessary investments we've seen quite frankly across this country."

The Calgary Board of Education suggested the money could be used to pay for measures schools are already taking. 

"This funding may assist in paying for the increased staffing levels that the CBE was already putting in place to support both in-class learning as well as our HUB model for distance learning," the board said in a statement. 

 "As well, the CBE has hired additional cleaning staff to address the need for more frequent and thorough cleaning."

The province's decision to allocate the money on a per-student basis is controversial, particularly since that includes private and charter schools which don't accept all students.

The Webber Academy, a private school in Calgary which charges $18,400 in annual tuition for Kindergarten to Grade 9 students, is receiving $330,750.

Schilling's preference is for private and charter schools to receive 70 per cent of the per-student funding allocated to public schools to reflect the proportion of money allocated by the province. But Li says all the federal funding should go to public schools. 

Parental notification

While the return to classrooms in Alberta has been contentious as infection rates continue to climb, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, praised efforts by schools to get ready to welcome students.

"I know COVID-19 has demanded herculean efforts from schools over the past six months, Hinshaw said. "Over the summer, teachers and staff have worked tirelessly to apply our public health guidance to prepare for a return to the classroom."

Alberta's plan is generally consistent with other provinces across Canada and many countries around the world, she said.

"As a parent, I know that returning to school in person is never without risk even before COVID," she said. "When our children leave the house in the morning, they must navigate risks of all kinds, and COVID-19 is one more among them.

"The school environment cannot completely eliminate the possibility of COVID exposure, which is why families must make the choice that is right for them, and there is no wrong decision."

Hinshaw said the province is committed to reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in schools when they occur.

"If there's even a single case in a school, even if there's no exposures within that school, parents and staff within that school will be notified," she said.

"And if there is an outbreak, we're defining that as two cases or more within a school, again parents and staff will be notified because it's so important to be transparent."

Some schools remain closed

As thousands of students return, the novel coronavirus has already kept some schools unexpectedly shuttered.

Meadows Ridge School in Okotoks, south of Calgary, did not open as planned Tuesday after a staff member was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Canyon Meadows School in Calgary was to open as planned Tuesday, but the principal, assistant principal and administrative secretary were forced into a 14-day quarantine after someone at the school tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the Peace River School Division, northwest of Edmonton, is delaying the start of its school year until after Labour Day. A notice on the division website said the delay will give teachers more time to get used to safety protocols and plan for at-home learning. 

On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said COVID-19 infections in schools are inevitable and that's no reason to keep classrooms shuttered.

Kenney said Hinshaw drafted school safety guidelines based on the most up-to-date research — and the risk of spread in schools has to be balanced against the significant harms of keeping kids home indefinitely.

He said suggestions that the federal funding should go toward cutting class sizes to allow for more physical distancing are unrealistic.

The premier estimated it would cost $4 billion to cut class sizes in half, so calls to do so are actually proposals to keep schools shut.

"We appreciate the additional federal funding, but there is no world in which you could reduce class sizes in half and reopen the schools for the current school year," Kenney said.

"It's simply fictitious. It has nothing to do with reality."

Under Alberta's school reopening plan, students in grades 4 to 12 must cover their faces when they're in common and shared indoor areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained, like hallways and buses.

The rules are eased for classrooms so that masks don't get in the way of learning and communication.

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine, Janet French and The Canadian Press

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