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NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman at a press conference in Winnipeg on June 28, 2018.

John Woods/The Canadian Press

The Alberta Opposition says Education Minister Adriana LaGrange needs to start fighting for students or quit and make way for someone who will.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman says LaGrange is failing in her core mandate by announcing mass layoffs of school support staff, including teaching assistants and substitute teachers, during the COVID-19 crisis.

“This is the job of the education minister, to put the resources and supports in place for kids to learn,” Hoffman said Monday.

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“I’m sure there’s a lot of pressure on her but she needs to go into (Premier Jason Kenney’s) cabinet (and) she needs to fight for these kids and these families. And if she doesn’t, then somebody else should be doing the job.”

Hoffman said it was “cruel and heartless” to lay off 25,000 vital workers via news release with little notice on the weekend.

LaGrange was not made available for an interview Monday.

She closed schools on March 15 due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, but at that time announced funding would stay whole.

“School authorities will receive their full allotment of funding for the 2019-2020 school year,” LaGrange told a legislature news conference.

But on the weekend, as schools geared up to begin virtual at-home programming for thousands of students, LaGrange directed school boards to lay off an estimated 25,000 support staff, including substitute teachers, school bus drivers and educational assistants who work with special needs students.

“COVID-19 has changed both how we provide student learning and the operational needs of the education system,” LaGrange said in an e-mail that pinged in at 1 p.m. Saturday.

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In a statement, LaGrange’s ministry said the move will free up an estimated $128 million to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Education assistant contracts must be concluded by the end of April and reduced use of substitute teachers is to begin Wednesday.

“Funding will return to regular levels when in-person classes resume. Staffing impacts will be determined on a school authority-by-authority basis,” said education spokesman Colin Aitchison in the email.

Jessica Kewley, a mother of four special needs students north of Edmonton, appeared by video-conferencing with Hoffman. She said the assistants are critical to her children’s education.

“When the minister said earlier that those supports were going to continue, I took her at her word,” said Kewley.

“The announcement on Saturday was sneaky and backhanded and hurts our most vulnerable.”

Nancy King, also by video conference, said a Grade 12 daughter – who deals with anxiety, Tourette’s syndrome and autism – was already worried about learning using a virtual program. Now she must do so without her trusted educational assistant.

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“Special-needs children need and thrive on consistency. My daughter’s EAs provide her with one-on-one support that the teacher is unable to provide right now.”

The province has added $500 million to its 2020-21 budget to battle the coronavirus, which has well over 600 confirmed cases in Alberta.

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said the layoffs by the United Conservative government were short-sighted.

“Faced with the double whammy of the pandemic and turmoil in the oil industry, it should be all hands on deck. Unfortunately, Premier Jason Kenney has chosen to throw Albertans overboard instead,” Smith said in a statement.

Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the group continues to have concerns “about how students with special needs will be supported through this time. Many parents are struggling and need as much help as possible.”

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