The Manitoba New Democrats are calling on the province to cap class sizes at 15 students as the government prepares to resume learning this fall during a global pandemic.
Though class sizes would shrink under this plan, the Official Opposition is still proposing every student be taught in a classroom.
To do so, the government should spend $260 million to hire more teachers and create more classrooms, among other needs, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said. Without it, classrooms would be overcrowded and teachers overworked, he said.
“It is a tall order,” Kinew said in front of a play structure at Vimy Ridge Park in Winnipeg on Tuesday.
“It is a big investment that is needed, but it’s an investment that we have to implement in order to meet those twin goals of keeping kids safe from COVID-19, but also meeting their needs around development and education.”
The NDP made its pitch in advance of an announcement from the Progressive Conservative government, which is expected to unveil its plan for fall learning later this week.
The government has previously said it would settle on one of three scenarios: a full return to class; a return to school with distancing, which would prioritize in-class learning for kindergarten to Grade 8; or a limited reopening with online and some small-group in-person learning.
School reopenings dictated by COVID-19
In June, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the decision will take into account the current COVID-19 situation.
Kinew said Tuesday that capping class sizes at 15 students would ensure students could learn safely in a classroom environment.
He’s calling on the province to spend $50 million to hire 400 extra teachers to support these students spread across more classrooms.
The NDP is also proposing $80 million to rent or build temporary and permanent classroom spaces. It suggests libraries, community halls, conference venues and vacant business spaces become classrooms in the short-term.
Kinew dismissed concerns his party’s plan wasn’t attainable before students get back to class in September.
“If we think back to March, we changed our education system 180 degrees within the span of a few days,” he said, referring to the rapid shift toward remote learning.
“I think this government, if they’re willing to make the investment and if they’re willing to put in the work over the month of August, could get us to this point.”
Kinew suggested the government could find teachers among recent education graduates who’ve struggled to find work.
The NDP’s plan also proposes $60 million to ramp up cleaning services, ranging from buying personal protective equipment to hiring additional custodial staff.
The party would tie $20 million to hiring social workers and psychologists, along with the support staff laid off when school divisions were ordered to cut non-essential spending.
A further $50 million would be spent on purchasing and renting more buses, as well as helping families with limited transportation choices.
Goertzen previously said the government would “rely heavily” on parents taking their children to school this fall.
‘Significant departure’ from school board planning
The Manitoba School Boards Association isn’t expecting the government to adopt the many suggestions, nor place a firm cap on the number of students per classroom.
“It would be a significant departure from where planning is currently focused,” said association president Alan Campbell.
School boards are drawing up plans based on what’s practical, which are the three back-to-school proposals the government has already put forth, Campbell said.
By and large, parents are hoping schools in Manitoba reopen to everyone, said Brenda Brazeau, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils.
She hopes the province’s plan takes those perspectives into account, along with the educational needs of those who stay home. Brazeau said she’s heard that some parents are thinking of home-schooling their children.
“We do have a heart for those [students] that do have some health issues and that maybe can’t attend school, whether it be because of COVID or anxiety,” she said. “We have to make sure that they’re taken care of as well.”
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