$52M promised for COVID-19 back-to-school costs in Manitoba

Manitoba schools will have an extra $52 million to draw from to pay for masks, transportation and extra cleaning as students prepare to head back to class amid rising COVID-19 case numbers. 

Money will be available to hire additional staff, education minister says

The money will be used to hire extra staff and pay for additional personal protective equipment and sanitization. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Manitoba schools will have an extra $52 million to draw from to pay for masks, transportation and extra cleaning as students prepare to head back to class amid rising COVID-19 case numbers. 

The new money "will mean that there is significant resources available to meet the demands that the pandemic is putting on our schools," Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said at a news conference Monday morning.

Some of that money will be available to hire additional staff to cover an expected rise in absenteeism.

"There will be human resource challenges within the school system, and this fund will be eligible for that as well," he said.

School divisions also saved $48 million earlier this year, and the province ordered them to hold onto money not being used when in-class learning was suspended in spring to help with costs when kids return to class.

Added together, the total amount available for back-to-school COVID-19 costs is $100 million.

Before school divisions can apply for the provincial funding, they have to use up the money they saved, Goertzen said. 

"The expectation would be that the savings that were garnered from money that taxpayers supplied but that weren't used in the spring" would be spent first, and then they can apply to have additional costs covered, he said.

The province has purchased 4.7 million masks for schools to hand out to students who need them, although families are asked to provide their own masks for students to wear.

The funds will be allocated as needed on a per-pupil basis to school divisions and independent schools, Goertzen said.

A portion of the funds will be held back to address urgent needs on a case-by-case basis.

No caps on class sizes

The union representing teachers in Manitoba, educators and parents have called on the province to fund the hiring of more staff in order to reduce class sizes and ensure there is an adequate supply of substitutes and educational assistants.

Monday's announcement made no mention of hiring more staff to reduce class sizes.

Public health officials recommend students stay at least two metres apart whenever possible, but current guidelines set a minimum distance of only one metre in classrooms.

"It makes no sense to have a lower safety standard in schools. Our schools should be the safest places," Manitoba Teachers' Society vice-president Nathan Martindale said in a statement released Monday.

Nello Altomare, education critic for the Opposition NDP, questioned how the application process for divisions to access funds would work.

"Schools need money now, before students come back, so that masks are stockpiled and the infrastructure is in place — but the province could take months to approve applications," he said in a statement.

Monday's announcement comes after a weekend of record-setting increases in the announced number of new COVID-19 cases.

Goertzen didn't say whether rising numbers in places like Brandon would require a return to at-home learning, but he said school divisions have already drawn up plans for that, just in case.

"We don't want to be there ... but we'd be in a better situation than we were in March, when we were essentially building the plane as we were flying it," he said.

A group of parents and educators called #SafeSeptemberMB called the funding announcement "weak," saying it amounts to about $250 per student, and slammed the province for not providing funding to reduce class sizes or to make remote learning more accessible.

The group has planned a rally at the Legislative Building for Aug. 27.

School buses and substitutes

"It's huge," Pembina Trails School Division Supt. Ted Fransen said the of the new money from the province.

In discussions with the province, two of the major "pressure points" that emerged were staffing and transportation, Fransen said.

Several school divisions have announced they would limit space on school buses to high-need students in order to meet physical distancing guidelines. In June, school divisions began asking families whether they were willing and able to drive their kids to school.

Last week, Pembina Trails sent out a memo announcing that after receiving "clarificaction" from the province, they were able to expand the availability of buses, with priority given to students in Kindergarten to Grade 6.

Although the extra funding will help make it easier for kids to get a spot on a school bus, other logistical problems including the availability of buses and drivers, could pose a problem, Goertzen said.

Pembina Trails' plan for high schools will allow students to keep two metres apart at all times, Fransen said. 

"We're pretty pleased about being in a position to have academic integrity and social distancing in our high schools," he said.

As for earlier grades, Fransen said the school division is following the advice of public health. Average class sizes for elementary schools in that division are currently between 20 and 24 students, while middle schools are between 24 and 28. 

The school division also bought 600 cameras for all K-12 classrooms to allow for remote learning, at the discretion of teachers. Fransen said he hopes some of the new funding will be available to cover those costs, as well.


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