Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says concerns from parents led his government to pledge $2-billion to provinces and territories for reopening schools, even though plans in many parts of the country have already been completed.
Calling it a school year like no other, Mr. Trudeau said Wednesday that Ottawa would transfer money to provinces and territories in two instalments in the fall and early next year to top up provincial funding and help schools respond to COVID-19. Mr. Trudeau said the money can be used as provinces see fit, including for additional learning spaces, air ventilation, hand sanitation, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
“Over the past week or so, I’ve heard from so many Liberal MPs, so many parents across the country, who are still extremely worried about how that reopening is going to go,” Mr. Trudeau said during his announcement at a school in north Toronto.
“We said, ‘Let’s give the provinces even more resources to be able to do everything that is necessary to keep our kids safe.’ "
Mr. Trudeau, who held a call with premiers on Tuesday, said he told the country’s first ministers that he respects provincial jurisdiction on education, adding that the funding is flexible.
But he said Ottawa has asked provinces and territories to inform the federal government at the end of the year about how they used the money, before the second portion of the funding is released.
The federal government is also spending an additional $112-million for First Nations schools on reserve, an amount both the federal and Ontario NDP said was woefully inadequate.
First Nations leaders welcomed the news but also expressed disappointment in the government’s delay to commit funds so close to the start of the school year.
Acting Ontario Regional Chief Alvin Fiddler said in a statement that First Nations “require immediate information on the proposed distribution of funds by the federal government.”
Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox said the announcement leaves communities and educators scrambling, leaving thousands of students and their school year in jeopardy.
“We are discouraged that today’s announcement doesn’t provide details on specific resources, timelines, how to access the funding or how it will be allocated,” he said in a statement from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario.
Some provinces appeared to be blindsided by Mr. Trudeau’s announcement. Students in Quebec return to school later this week, and school boards in other parts of the country have been drawing up reopening plans, with school starting in a matter of weeks.
The money will be allocated to provinces and territories based on the number of children aged four to 18 years old, with $2-million in base funding for each jurisdiction.
Ontario will receive the largest portion of funding, at more than $760-million, followed by Quebec at $432-million, Alberta at $262-million and B.C. at $242-million.
Although supportive of the additional funding, an Alberta official confirmed that the province was given little notice.
“Given this is a very sudden announcement by the federal government, officials from Alberta Education are currently reviewing the program details in order to determine how to best distribute this funding to school authorities quickly and effectively,” said Colin Aitchison, a spokesman for Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.
Quebec, which also welcomed the announcement, said it will take the time needed to consult with the school system on how to use its portion. “It’s of the utmost importance that we have the flexibility to use this money according to our own priorities,” said Sonia LeBel, Quebec’s minister responsible for Canadian relations.
British Columbia said it has been talking with the federal government about the need for more resources for schools, “so we’re appreciative of the additional support.” Education Minister Rob Fleming said the money would go toward purchasing PPE, installing plexiglass barriers, improving ventilation systems and hiring more custodians.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he got a heads up about the announcement from Mr. Trudeau last Friday, but a few premiers seemed taken aback by Ottawa’s offer.
“I know a few of the premiers weren’t happy that someone was stepping on their toes,” Mr. Ford said Wednesday at Queen’s Park.
“I just said very simply to the premiers yesterday, ‘Guys, we understand that.’ The Prime Minister, when he spoke to me on Friday, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘Doug I understand, this isn’t my jurisdiction, but I just want to help.’ And we’re grateful for that and I want to thank the Prime Minister for that.”
Ontario said it is receiving an initial instalment of $381-million, with the bulk of the money going toward health and safety initiatives, student transportation and funding for special needs. Another $50-million is being set aside for the future.
Parents in Ontario have been demanding smaller class sizes in the elementary grades, but the province is setting aside $70-million of the federal funding to hire educators on a temporary basis. Mr. Ford said that sum, along with a previously announced $30-million and access to $500-million in school-board reserves, is “an ample amount of money.” School boards have said only a portion of the reserve money can be used to reopen schools safely.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce defended the decision to only allocate $70-million for hiring, saying that another $100-million is being set aside for school boards to use based on their local needs, which could include hiring custodians, teachers or improving ventilation systems.
“This is more funding on top of Ontario’s already leading investments in the country and we think it’s going to make a difference,” Mr. Lecce said.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said the province has failed to provide a properly funded plan to reopen schools, and the federal government has filled the void.
“We need to ensure that this funding is made directly available to school boards with a mandate to reduce class sizes to allow for proper physical distancing, ensure proper ventilation in all classrooms and implement health and safety protocols that protect all students, educators and other staff and their families,” president Sam Hammond said.
The $2-billion in school funding comes in addition to more than $19-billion previously announced by Ottawa to help provinces and territories safely restart their economies.
With reports from Willow Fiddler in Thunder Bay, Wendy Stueck in Vancouver and Eric Andrew-Gee in Montreal
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.