N.W.T. government says no new funding for schools to prevent spread of COVID-19 — yet

When the territory’s classrooms reopen in the fall, they’ll have to meet new health and safety standards — and money for that will have to come out of regular staffing budgets, for now.

‘Emerging Wisely’ plan says schools must provide masks for every student, cut class sizes in half

A blue plastic cup, filled with coloured pencils, sits on a desk in a classroom. In the background, there are empty chairs at a desk, and books in cubby holes.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education, Culture and Employment said funding for COVID-19 prevention would have to be 'reallocated' from regular spending. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Public schools in the N.W.T. may have to meet new stringent health and safety standards with no additional funding from the territorial government.

A spokesperson for the territory's Department of Education, Culture and Employment said there is no new funding planned for schools in the 2020-21 school year to help meet requirements spelled out in the territory's "Emerging Wisely" reopening plan.

The territory's requirements for reopening classrooms, which was met with surprise when announced May 12, ask schools to take a number of stringent measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Those include half-day instruction, the installation of Plexiglas barriers, face coverings for all students and teachers, and "enhanced cleaning" of shared spaces.

It's not yet clear whether schools will need to meet those specific requirements. Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the chief public health officer, said education authorities are asked to tailor plans to their specific situation.

But a June 4 statement from the Education Department suggests schools are preparing for a "potential second wave" in the fall, which may result in a return to more stringent public health measures. The same statement says schools hope to submit their plans for approval this month.

Regardless of what steps are taken, the department was clear that any expenses would have to be covered by schools' regular budgets.

"There is no funding included in the 2020-2021 budget specifically for COVID-19 mitigation and planning," Meagan Wohlberg, a spokesperson for the department, wrote in an email.

Students at a Montreal-area school get their hands sanitized as they enter. New health and safety standards set by the chief public health officer require enhanced cleaning, masks for staff and students, and 'staggered entry' to prevent large gatherings. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The territory's schools are funded based on a formula that allocates money for a specific number of administration and teaching positions. Dedicated amounts are also specified for Indigenous language education and inclusive schooling, which supports students with special needs.

Wohlberg said schools could "reallocate" those amounts to cover the expense of new health and safety requirements. That includes funding for Indigenous language education and inclusive schooling, she said.

"Some degree of flexibility exists to refocus funds within those categories," she wrote in an email.

Indigenous language education and inclusive schooling were two areas where a federal auditor general's report identified major shortcomings just four months ago.

The report found that the department had no idea where or how many language educators were needed in territorial schools, and had little data on whether supports for students with special needs were adequate.

Students from Aklavik's Moose Kerr School learning outdoors. Some N.W.T. schools have already made adjustments to offer in-person support to students. (Submitted by Moose Kerr School)

Funding announcement may be coming: superintendent

News that funding to meet new health and safety standards would come from regular budgets came as a surprise to Darlene Gruben, the chair of the Beaufort Delta District Education Council.

"We haven't discussed that issue before," she said.

Gruben said she didn't think there was extra funding in the inclusive schooling or Indigenous languages budgets to cover the cost of new public health measures. She said the board has surplus funding of about seven per cent that could be put toward those expenses, but "it's not a huge amount."

"Other areas of our funding could be moved," she said, "but … it's not going to be where we put any of our teachers or students at risk."

Metro Huculak, the outgoing superintendent of Yellowknife's public school board, was also surprised by the statement.

However, Huculak said leaders within the department told him they were trying to get retroactive funding from the federal government for pandemic-related expenses incurred in the 2019-2020 school year.

Yellowknife Education District No.1 school board superintendent Metro Huculak said territorial officials were seeking federal funding to cover the 2019-20 school year's COVID-19 expenses. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

"We've been asked to keep track of all our COVID-19 expenses," he said. "Hopefully by the end of June we're going to have some clear indication of where that all stands."

Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake and chair of the Legislative Assembly's social development committee, said the government had already procured 3,000 face shields and 20,000 masks it planned to provide schools in the fall.

She also said schools and the department will be conducting a "gap analysis to identify further needs" as schools develop their reopening plans.

"As the plans are finalized and analyzed decisions will be made about whether additional supports are required to assist education bodies," she wrote in an email.

Department earns high praise from education leaders

It's not the first time educators have been surprised by the territorial government. Education leaders previously criticized the territorial government for providing little warning of recommendations from the chief public health officer to close and reopen classrooms.

However, both Gruben and Huculak had positive things to say about the department's senior bureaucrats, who they said were working tirelessly to manage a changing situation.

"Working with the [assistant deputy minister] and the directors from [the department] has been phenomenal," said Huculak. "They're under a lot of stress."

"We have a really good working relationship with the new minister," said Gruben, "and he has been able to let us know what has been coming up, even though … things are changing every day."

"I think he's doing a really good job."