Ministry memo a major muddle

School Magazine  – 2021-03-18

Don’t plan on any more extra Covid-19 funding; plan on laying off staff. That’s the upshot of a February 26 memo sent by Deputy Minister of Education, Nancy Naylor to directors and financial officials of school boards across the province and it wasn’t reassuring.

The Ministry of Education must have access to a crystal ball that says COVID-19 will be done with for the 2021-22 school year and it will be able to halt steps taken to provide extra funding to cover costs of keeping school a little safer this year.

As Ms. Naylor says in her memo:

“These steps were possible by the government making available over $1.6 billion in temporary resources to support the safe reopening of schools, with a plan that was designed in consultation with medical authorities in the province.”

She’s being a little vague as to what “government” she’s referring. The Ford government has a bit of a short memory regarding this point. As School Magazine and others have noted several times over past months, the $1.6 billion she’s talking about comes from the following accounts:

      • $762 million from the federal Safe Return to Class Fund
      • $496 million from Ontario school boards’ reserves, enabling them to spend more of their own money to keep schools safer
      • $342 million from the province

Considering the depth of concerns across the province over returning to school, the Ford government never did offer up very much money to allay them – never did provide the funding needed to lower class sizes to around 15 students per teacher  which would have improved chances for social distancing.

What’s also curious is the claim in the memo that, with a decline in enrolment of 40 000 students due to COVID-19: “The ministry expects that provincial enrolment will continue to be lower than previously planned and school boards should revise their enrolment projections to reflect actual 2020-21 levels.”  It makes sense that students will return to school as their parents assess that it’s safe for them to do so. If enrolment is going to continue to be lower for the coming year, could it be that parents will keep their kids away from public schools because they don’t trust that they’re safe?

There’s no plan for that mentioned in the memo. Its purpose is to inform boards that as we wobble on the edge of a possible third wave of a pandemic against which, as of today, a startlingly small 2% of the population has been vaccinated: “…it is understandable that school boards may issue more than the typical number of redundancy notices to its staff this winter/spring.”

Other than complaining that teachers unions ratted it out by publicly posting the memo, the Ford government has little to offer by way of solace to the possible 7 000 education workers who face lay-offs.  Essentially, the Ministry is telling the school boards that they’re on their own until further notice. There’s no indication of extra funding in the future – even if only for COVID safety. We’ll just have to see what happens, though the Ministry “may be reaching out to school boards to ask for additional data to help our continued planning for the 2021-22 school year.” Not much comfort here.

Boards have already used up about half of their reserves, which are supposed to be earmarked for future financial obligations and unexpected costs. The matter of dealing with the academic, emotional and social fallout from the past year of isolation is a whole other matter. So, what’s the plan – wait for the federal government to pony up some funds?