Manitoba reluctant to share the bill for expensive pandemic schooling

By | August 19, 2020

You don’t need a degree in epidemiology to empathize with people’s fears as Manitoba schools get set to reopen, even as COVID-19 still looms large.

Schools have always been prime breeding grounds for germs. That won’t change in September, but mix in an easily spread new virus and pesky physical distancing rules some kids won’t follow, and you’ve got a possible recipe for transmission.

That has many parents and school staff on side with experts calling for masks, smaller class sizes and improved ventilation, especially as the number of coronavirus cases in Manitoba rises steadily.

The provincial government said it cares, too, about making schools safe, but so far hasn’t backed that up with new money — at least, not yet. 

Without additional funding from the province, school divisions are fine-tuning plans on their own to keep students at least a metre apart, tailor lessons for remote learning and incur the costs of new bus routes and sanitization measures. 

They’re turning to money they saved when classes were shuttered in March and non-essential expenses were cut. If they need more cash, school divisions will dip into their budgets.

Paying for face coverings

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said last week the province would reassess the funding question if school divisions say they need more money.

The province has offered to pay for masks (they’re strongly recommended for students in Grade 5 and above, but not mandatory in Manitoba schools) and other protective gear, but the undetermined financial commitment falls short of what many want.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society, for example, is calling for funding to make masks mandatory, cap class sizes, hire substitute teachers and implement rapid COVID-19 testing. 

The reluctance to spend new money three weeks before the start of an unprecedented school year isn’t shocking when you remember how tightly Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government has held onto the province’s purse strings before, and during, the pandemic.

Consider school divisions, which argued they were cash-strapped long before anyone heard of COVID-19. Administration and trustees grumbled for years of reduced provincial grants, or funding increases below the rate of inflation, under Tory leadership. Property tax increases were limited to two per cent per year.

Manitoba schools partially reopened in June to small groups and one-on-one instructions. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

But now, the government’s austerity approach — on track before the pandemic to whittle away Manitoba’s deficit to nothing — is drawing the ire of many parents worried about sending their kids to school.

Meanwhile, other provinces have pledged new money for education.

Ontario is setting aside more than $200 million for enhanced custodial needs, better ventilation and personal protective equipment. It’s also giving all school divisions the authority to spend a total of $500 million from their reserves.

Saskatchewan is allocating $40 million for pandemic-related costs, while Quebec is devoting $20 million to hire more teachers and specialized tutors.

In Manitoba, Pallister hasn’t exactly seemed anxious to crack open the province’s piggy back.

By mid-April — a month into the economic shutdown — the province had funded a volunteer-finder app, mental health therapy and a call centre linking Manitobans with federal help, but had not at that point created any financial aid packages of its own.

Pallister said his government was waiting to find the cracks in Ottawa’s assistance before digging into the province’s coffers — perhaps a prudent financial decision financially, but caution didn’t keep other provinces from providing stimulus cash.

Take Saskatchewan for example, which by then was offering grants of up to $5,000 for any business, no strings attached.

Manitoba eventually made $256 million in support for businesses and employment available, but some would argue it’s revisionist history for Pallister to say, as he has at recent media briefings, that his government presented the “right program[s] at the right time.”

As for schools, new money alone won’t allay the legitimate fears of reopening during a pandemic. Some people won’t feel safe until a vaccine exists, or until everyone 10 years of age and older is wearing a face covering.

But new money might help convince them that the government cares about safety as well as balancing the provincial books.

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