VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) – We’re getting a better idea of how B.C. schools spent a big chunk of nearly a quarter billion dollars in funding to help keep classes going during the pandemic.
The head of the teacher’s union says seeing where the first $100 million from September went, there are lots of gaps. She’s calling for the province to direct how the next installment is spent, instead of leaving it up to districts — like they did last time.
With over $100 million in additional funding soon going out to schools across the province, BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Teri Mooring says there must be clarity about where it’s needed most.
“It’s clear that there are needs now that have not been addressed [such as] remote learning, ventilation systems, mental health supports. All of those, I would say, are needs that haven’t been addressed and need to be,” Mooring said.
She says those gaps need to be the focus, now, especially in districts hardest hit by COVID-19 cases, which will need more than their share.
“What’s happened is custodial staff has been hired. When you hire them, you generally commit to a full year. What we’re going to hear from districts is that the bulk of that money that’s coming from the federal government has already been spoken for,” Mooring said.
She says without direction, districts mainly used the funding to hire teachers to facilitate course scheduling changes and changes due to the safety restrictions.
“But they didn’t hire additional counsellors, for example. They didn’t hire additional learning support teachers, even though we are dramatically understaffed there. They just focused on the health and safety part of it — making the cohorts work, etcetera. So it’s not the same, actually. And we still have a significant issue there,” Mooring said.
‘It doesn’t really pass the smell test’
Another pressing issue, according to Mooring, is many teachers wanting masks mandated in classrooms — not just in hallways. Public health officers give guidance on issues like this, but she says the ultimate responsibility is governments.
“I hope that government has seen, like I am seeing out in the public, a general kind of concern that there isn’t enough safety measures in place in schools. I mean, it doesn’t really pass the smell test that there isn’t a more robust mask policy at play,” she told NEWS 1130.
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Calls for in-school mask-wearing were renewed this week, as the Surrey School District shared that five classes at one school had 50 cases, heading into the winter break. Sharing school COVID case data is another area Mooring says needs improvement. According to the province, over $3.5 million was spent on more than 2 million disposable and reusable face masks.
The BCTF president also claims parents and teachers are buying portable ventilation units, which are a district responsibility.
Mooring believes conversations around how the COVID support cash should be spent need to happen at the local level and include teaching staff.
“In most cases, we’ve been in the complete dark about where this money went and how this money was being planned to be spent. That’s not the way it should be working in a pandemic. We should be working better, together. And that’s not okay.”
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The province says more than half of the funds from September ($56.5 million) was spent on “Learning Resources and Supports,” primarily related to the delivery of education programs. More than a third ($35.3 million) was spent on health and safety measures, including nearly $15 million put into enhanced cleaning protocols in schools.
In a written statement, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside says decisions around how the next and final $100 million is spent — and what, if any, direction is given — are being made in discussion with the steering committee which she says includes union members.
Whiteside says the public health guidance for schools “have resulted in very low transmission rates in schools.” She argues the way the funds were shared in September gave school districts “flexibility” in areas such as staff hiring and increasing cleaning protocols.
Whiteside points to the number of students currently attending classes in person or through “transition” programs as a sign that parents are confident in the current measures in place, adding she believes districts “are managing their staffing needs well.”
In regards to mental health, the education minister acknowledges that there have been impacts on everyone and says supporting students and staff “is a priority.”
According to the province, $1.3 million was spent on mental health supports in the last round of funding.