Sask. parents say education an election issue they're watching with pandemic perspective
Party leaders spar on education issue during provincial debate
Parents in Saskatchewan had ample anxiety about the return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some it's shaping the way they're following the provincial election.
The province's next government will be decided on Oct. 26, when thousands of people across the province head to their local polling stations. Faith Eagle in one of those people.
Eagle has two children attending Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools. She said education is everything to her kids and one of the biggest issues driving her to the polls.
"It's very important," she said. "It's vital. It's a way of life for me and my children."
Eagle said she's been watching closely as the province and school divisions worked to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in classrooms across the province.
It's vital. It's a way of life for me and my children.Faith Eagle, GSCS parent
She said she wonders what's being done to ensure teachers aren't travelling and that students can actually keep physically distanced from one another in the busy facilities.
With parents not allowed in schools unless required, Eagle is debating whether or not to remove her children from in-school learning and opt for online learning instead.
"Is everybody sanitizing? Is everybody being cautious? Are they socially distancing or is everybody just coming together and not wearing masks?" Eagle asked. "I don't know what's happening in schools, because I'm not allowed in there, so I have a lot of worries."
Eagle said she'll be voting for the Saskatchewan NDP and Ryan Meili on Oct. 26. She said he's the only party leader that's reached out to her family, something that means a lot to her.
"For me, it feels like there's a level of compassion and humanity in him," she said.
"It feels like he's patient and he'll take the time and say, 'Listen, this is what I'm doing. This is our party. This is what's happening,' and even him taking five seconds out of his day, it changed my mind."
The province's original back-to-school plan was criticized by parents, doctors and the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation. Concerns included a lack of mandatory masks, no cap on class sizes and no additional funding allocated toward the plan.
The province made several changes, including pushing back the first day of school to allow for more planning, allocating $40 million to schools from a $200-million COVID-19 contingency fund and introducing plans for voluntary in-school testing.
How a school operates during the pandemic, however, has been widely left up to individual school divisions.
Sask. Party supporter says back-to-school plan solidified vote
Some voters, like Lisa Beaulieu, feel the province's approach has worked well.
Beaulieu has a child in the Southeast Cornerstone School Division, which serves several communities in southeast Saskatchewan. She said she's been pleased with how the government has been handling the pandemic in schools.
She said that since the beginning, she's felt teachers and students were given the support they need by Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party to navigate the unprecedented transition.
"I'm just happy with the way things are, and I couldn't imagine any government doing any better than what we're doing already, and that's not just because I'm a Sask. Party supporter, but it's because I'm a mom, and I'm working through COVID as well."
She said she feels the Saskatchewan Party has always focused on families.
"I've been very impressed with how everything is running," she said.
"Anything that I've been paying attention to in all of this campaigning, when it comes to my child's education, I've been happy with. The issues of being safe in the school and the way they provided homeschooling for those that choose not to, and the fact they have a choice, is amazing."
Beaulieu said that over the last few weeks she's been listening carefully to what candidates are saying about education, as the last thing she wants to see is cuts to education that affect the classroom.
I've been very impressed with how everything is running.- Lisa Beaulieu, Southeast Cornerstone School Division parent
Both parties have a section dedicated to education in their online platforms. The incumbent Sask. Party highlights the work it has done since being elected, pointing to an overall increase in funding of 37 per cent over the last 13 years, with figures jumping to $1.94 billion in 2020, compared to $1.41 billion in 2007.
Enrolment during this time has increased by 15 per cent.
The platform also boasts that the Saskatchewan Party has added 1,300 new teachers and 100 more educational assistants while in power.
In the 2020-21 budget, the Saskatchewan Party announced an increase in K-12 operations funding of 2.1 per cent, to $1.8 billion from $1.76 billion in 2019-20, and an increase in capital funding of 34.6 per cent, to $130.4 million in 2020-21 from $96.5 million in 2019-20. The increase in capital funding will be used to construct seven new schools and renovate three others.
The Saskatchewan NDP's education platform focuses on reducing class sizes and addressing classroom complexity, noting this would start with an increase in school funding of $150 million and a pledge to add 1,000 teachers, 700 educational assistants and 400 caretakers.
The NDP also outlined a plan to hire 50 school-based mental health and addiction nurses and provide $3 million to develop a rural education strategy.
Former educator backing NDP and Meili
Marilee Brown is a former EA at Saskatoon's Pleasant Hill School who now works with at-risk youth. Although she has no children of her own, she's been watching the conversations around education during the election, as she works with students on a regular basis.
Brown will be casting her vote for Meili and the NDP, as she feels they are better equipped to handle challenges facing Saskatchewan's education sector.
"[Meili] has a better understanding of the whole health-care system," said Brown. "I think he understands how important it is to have smaller class sizes, to have more resources in the schools and just to provide teachers with help on what they're doing."
Brown said she's been seeing stories about teachers having to monitor kids while washing their hands and about time meant for instruction being used to make sure COVID-19 isn't spreading.
The former teacher said she was not impressed with the Saskatchewan Party's handling of the back to school plan.
"There's classes that are just so crowded and there's no opportunity to physically distance really," she said. "I was really disappointed there wasn't more funding put in for more teachers, for lower class sizes and things like that."
Even with precautions in place, COVID-19 outbreaks have already been declared at six Saskatchewan schools as of Oct. 21.
Regina is currently dealing with three outbreaks, at elementary schools Ecole Harbour Landing, Ethel Milliken and Marion McVeety.
Saskatoon is grappling with one outbreak at Holy Cross High School. La Ronge is dealing with an outbreak at Pre-Cam community school and Yorkton was host to the province's first outbreak in a school at Yorkton Regional High School. That outbreak is still ongoing.
As of Wednesday, Alberta had 70 active school-based outbreaks and Manitoba had one.
Leaders weigh-in on education at debate
Wednesday's debate saw the NDP and the Saskatchewan Party leaders spar on education. Following a question about kids falling behind due to COVID-19, Moe touched on the Sask. Party's track record on education.
"We didn't wait for a pandemic to invest in education in this province," said Moe, outlining the Sask. Party government's construction of 57 schools in the province and saying his party will continue to invest in education, pointing to $51 million of $155 million that's already been provided to schools.
"The rest will be dispersed on request," said Moe. "With those dollars, we've provided for over 440 staff that have come into our schools to ensure that our educators, and most importantly, our students have the supports that they need."
We didn't wait for a pandemic to invest in education in this province."- Scott Moe, Sask. Party Leader
Meili responded by saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has put more pressure on classrooms and schools that were already overtaxed to begin with.
"After having those months off, we're having kids trying to catch up in classrooms that were already overcrowded, already overstressed," he said. "We have more kids in our classes, but not just more kids, more kids with special needs, more kids coming to school with mental health troubles, or coming to school hungry, because a quarter of children in Saskatchewan continue to live in poverty.
"COVID-19 has simply exposed the problems that already existed in our classrooms that teachers and parents have been speaking about for years."
During open debate, Moe stressed that the province had a "very public conversation" about the return to school plan and said the way to ensure students are caught up is to invest in support they need.
"We have invested in our COVID pandemic response to ensure our return to schools is safe. We talked to teachers. We talked to parents. We talked to the school boards. And we listened," he said. "That allowed us to ensure that we were able to come up with a plan that was adaptable, that was flexible, and I would say, that is effective."
Meili took issue with Moe's remarks, saying the extra cash only came after criticism from the Saskatchewan public and medical professionals.
"Exactly the same amount until, parents, teachers, families, kids, spoke up and said we're not O.K. with just hope that things are OK and go back to normal," said Meili.
When asked where the money for the thousand teachers outlined in the NDP platform would come from, Meili pointed to his party's plan to introduce a wealth tax on families in Saskatchewan worth more than $15 million. Moe said that covers just a fraction of the NDP platform's expenses.
Kids appear ready to roll despite some parent frustration
Shannon Lussier is a Sask. Party supporter in Regina with two kids in school in the city's Catholic division. She said the incumbent party is in the best position to lead the province, specifically when it comes to stabilizing the province moving forward, but that the last few weeks have been frustrating.
"It's certainly made me think about my vote," she said.
She doesn't have the option to work from home, so the possibility of her child being sent home from school due to illness, even if it's just the sniffles, is always looming.
With a partner who works as a teacher, she's watching what kind of an investment the province is making in keeping staff and students safe.
"Kids are super resilient, so it's been quite easy for them to fall back into a routine, but the teachers aren't having that same type of ease that the kids have," she said. "I think it's really important that number one, my kids are safe, but also that I can still continue to work."
She said the Sask. Party still has her support, but that communication as the return to school was underway left her wanting more information.
"I know it was a changing situation, but if there was money being put into the schools, I think that should have been the first announcement," she said.
"It shouldn't have been, what we felt, was sort of an afterthought after there were a lot of challenges to the government."
Lussier also noted that many parents who may have had concerns about the return to school were put at ease when classrooms started to fill, as case counts didn't skyrocket. She said a lot of those expressing concerns were doing so on behalf of their children, when in reality those kids were ready and willing to adapt.
"The kids, however, are the type of people who will just roll with the punches."