Manitoba government promises $58M for schools to cover COVID-19-related costs in coming year

The Manitoba government is earmarking $58 million to help kindergarten to Grade 12 schools deal with COVID-19 in the coming school year.

The funding announced Thursday includes about $15 million left over from federal money that was originally meant for pandemic preparations in the 2020-21 school year.

“We want to ensure that school divisions have these allocations well in advance as they plan for whatever next school year may look like,” Manitoba Education Minister Cliff Cullen said during a news conference Thursday afternoon.

Most of the $58 million in spending announced Thursday — $40 million — will go toward hiring more school staff, learning and technology, and workplace health and safety, a news release from the province said.

Of the remaining money, $6 million will be put aside for purchasing personal protective equipment, while $5 million will go to the Kindergarten to Grade 8 Remote Learning Support Centre — a support for students who cannot return to in-class learning due to medical reasons, the release said.

Another $7 million will be put toward contingency planning, including $5 million going into a “recovery learning fund,” the release says.

The fund is meant to address the effects of COVID-19 on student learning, such as mental health and wellness, literacy and numeracy, and student engagement.

If more money is needed so schools can keep students and staff safe from COVID-19, the province is committed to paying that price, Cullen said.

“This is the minimum amount that we will be providing to the school boards,” he said.

“We’re optimistic September will come and we’ll be closer to a normal school year than certainly what we are now. But we do recognize there’s going to be some recovery required and some catch-up required.”

The money will be made available to schools and school divisions in the same manner as this year, said Cullen. School divisions will submit their COVID-related expenses to the Department of Education and be reimbursed.

Each school division will receive a funding allocation, but the contingency fund will be available if they need more, said Cullen.

‘A lot of learning recovery required’

With the 2021-22 academic year still months away, Cullen says he made the funding announcement now to let school divisions know they should start preparing for once again juggling COVID-19 concerns with delivering education.

“We wanted to signal that we do have money set aside for them, so [they can] make sure that they’re taking the necessary steps,” said Cullen.

“Obviously, there will be a lot of learning recovery required. We’re not sure exactly what that’s going to look like, but school boards will be working on that.”

On Thursday, the province announced remote learning will continue for schools in Winnipeg and Brandon, as well as in the Red River Valley and Garden Valley school divisions, until at least June 7. Dauphin schools will continue with remote learning until at least June 9.

The extension of remote learning comes weeks into a series of widespread public health orders aimed at reducing close contacts and reducing pressure on Manitoba hospitals.

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the hope is still to get students back into schools before the end of this academic year.

Cullen says there will be an announcement next week about where students will be learning from for the rest of the school year.

The education minister was cautious Thursday about predicting what needs to happen for in-class learning to occur come September.

The ministry will be working with public health officials to get their advice on what’s safe, he said, adding that the number of COVID-19 cases in the community and the strain on the health-care system at that time will likely be a factor.

CBC News contacted the department of public health to see if any benchmarks have been set to allow in-class learning in September, but they were unable to provide that information before deadline Thursday.

Nello Altomare, Opposition NDP education critic, is concerned the Progressive Conservatives won’t follow through with their funding allocation. (NDP)

Funding announcement ‘disingenuous,’ says NDP 

Nello Altomare, Opposition NDP education critic, is skeptical of the announced funding because he says the Progressive Conservatives have allocated money in the past but not spent it.

He cited the $85 million received from the Canadian government that was supposed to be put toward COVID-19-related costs in schools this year, but not all of which was used.

“It’s disingenuous. We don’t know that they’re actually going to follow through on it,” said Altomare in an interview with CBC News.

Planning for the next school must start now and a pandemic recovery plan for the education sector needs to be developed, he added.

James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, agrees that schools must prepare for what may lie ahead in September, despite how uncertain that appears right now.

Bedford, whose organization represents over 16,000 public school teachers, also sees the announced funding as affirmation the K-12 education system has been underfunded for several years.

“The system badly needs that extra money in order to ensure safety because there’s no money anywhere else in the system,” he said.