Alberta education cut expected to lay off thousands during pandemic

The Alberta government has temporarily cut funding for K-12 school transportation and support staff as students transition to at-home learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Temporary reduction, minister says, as schools transition to at-home learning

the dome of the Alberta legislature
Alberta Education Ministry says it is temporarily reducing funds for K-12 school transportation and some services not utilized in at-home learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Juris Graney/CBC)

Thousands of educational assistants and support staff are expected to be laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic after the Alberta government announced it will cut some K-12 education funding as students transition to at-home learning.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange directed school boards across the province on Saturday to immediately issue notices to educational assistants with the expectation they will be laid off by the end of April. 

School boards are also being asked to immediately issue notices to non-essential support staff and bus drivers, while limiting the use of substitute teachers. 

The education ministry will redirect $128 million in funding to the province's COVID-19 response from the school boards, said LaGrange's press secretary, Colin Aitchison. Funding will be restored once in-person classes resume. 

In a statement, LaGrange said the operational needs of the education system have changed in light of the outbreak.  

"I want to stress this is a temporary arrangement as schools focus on at-home learning," she said. "I have full confidence the system will continue to be equipped to successfully deliver our education continuity plan."

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The funding cut was a shock to school administrators across the province, who learned about the decision in a call with LaGrange the same day it was announced.

'We need them'

When in-person classes were cancelled earlier this month due to the COVID-19 outbreak, LaGrange said, "School authorities will receive their full allotment of funding for the 2019-2020 school year." 

The funding decision upends that promise, says Edmonton Public Schools board chair Trisha Estabrooks, generating more uncertainty during a difficult time. The announcement came less than two days before the school boards were set to roll out at-home programming to hundreds of thousands of Alberta students coming off spring break.

"We know that to support students in a meaningful way requires more than just teaching staff," Estabrooks said.

"There was a need for many, many such staff that will be affected by this decision today that we had planned for. We need them."

Estabrooks said it was too early to determine how many jobs will be lost or to calculate the amount of money the cuts represent to the school board. 

But students with special needs, who depend on the support of educational assistants, will be among the most impacted by the funding cuts, she said. 

We know that to support students in a meaningful way requires more than just teaching staff.- Trisha Estabrooks, Edmonton Public Schools board chair

The move represents a 14 per cent cut to the school boards' base instruction grant for May and June, as well a 51 per cent reduction to transportation funding for the remainder of the school year. 

In a statement Saturday, Edmonton Catholic Schools board chair Laura Thibert called the decision "difficult news to receive."

"We will now begin to identify the impact this news will have on the number of employees affected and are thankful that this will only be a temporary measure until instruction resumes," Thibert said.

Unions expect 20K layoffs 

The Alberta division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees expects the cuts will lead to roughly 20,000 temporary layoffs, including 10,000 of its own members, from educational assistants to custodial workers. President Rory Gill said he learned about the decision about 45 minutes before it was announced. 

"We have great concerns about the disruption of the school year," he said. 

The decision pits two vital government services against each other, Gill said: public education and its response to COVID-19. 

"Education is vital and we need to look at keeping as many people employed as we possibly can," he said. 

The Alberta Teachers' Association said when substitute teachers are included, closer to 25,000 education workers could be laid off. 

"We were pushing hard to ensure substitute teachers, many of whom work nearly full-time, were also supported. Teachers also stand in solidarity with the support staff affected by this disappointing decision," ATA president Jason Schilling said in a statement Saturday.

The government's news release states that impacted staff will qualify for the federal enhanced employment insurance program. 

Trevor Tombe, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary, posted on Twitter that the move amounts to the province uploading sector salary costs to the federal government.

He said 20,000 jobs amounts to one per cent of the province's entire labour.

With files from Janet French