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Students wear protective facemasks as they arrive for their first day of school at Mendel College, in Haarlem, The Netherlands.

ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Instead of fundraising for playground structures, field trips and guest speakers, Canadian parents are turning their attention to raise money for plexiglass shields, cleaning supplies and air purifiers for their children’s schools.

With classes resuming later this week in Quebec and in a matter of weeks in the rest of Canada, many parents are increasingly anxious about what measures are in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But their efforts to help ensure the supply of personal protective equipment and other COVID-related items are threatening to deepen the divide between have and have-not schools.

Explainer: Canada’s back-to-school plans

Brandi Rai, president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association, said members of her group have told her that they think government should be covering such expenses, not parents through their fundraising. But, just a couple of weeks from classes resuming, they have not seen “any movement provincially related to the measures parents and other partners have asked for.”

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“Public education is supposed to be equitable and accessible,” Ms. Rai said. “This pandemic has highlighted all of the weak spots where vulnerable children are often left behind, and they are being further left behind with the [COVID-19] plan and the funding that has been given so far.”

Fundraising has always been a thorny issue in education. Some education experts have argued that the fundraising dollars parents pour into schools allow governments to underfund education. In Ontario, for example, guidelines prevent schools from spending that money on items that are publicly funded, such as classroom supplies and capital projects. But there is a great deal of ambiguity: While guidelines prevent parents from adding square footage to a school, they can retrofit an auditorium or add a new sound system.

The pandemic has widened inequities in education, observers say, as higher-income families have been able to supplement the schooling their children received while learning remotely. Ann Lopez, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said that while fundraising is a “good gesture,” it will further widen inequities because not all parent communities will be able to purchase those extras.

“The pandemic risks broadening this fissure at the expense of people in lower socio-economic groups who are already suffering during the pandemic,” Prof. Lopez said.

A report last year from the Ontario advocacy group, People for Education, found that the top 10 per cent of elementary schools ranked on their fundraising collected 33 times the amount of the schools in the bottom 10 per cent. Some schools reported collecting as much as $100,000. Annie Kidder, the group’s spokeswoman, said schools that raise more money can afford newer playing fields, technology, field trips and more library books, whereas those who can’t struggle with providing those extras to their children. “It can make a difference in terms of enrichment, around the edges of education,” Ms. Kidder said.

Rachel Chernos Lin, a trustee at the Toronto District School Board, said she and her colleagues received direction from board staff that school councils can use fundraising revenue for health and safety supplies if it’s not fully funded by the province and if it doesn’t result in an increase to the board’s operating expenses.

The Ontario Ministry of Education said it would pay for all required personal protective equipment and recently announced $50-million in one-time funding for improved ventilation, air quality and HVAC systems in schools across the province.

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Ms. Chernos Lin has noticed on social media that parents are asking if school councils can supplement those measures and raise money for fans, air filters and plexiglass dividers that could be used between students’ desks or at the teacher’s desk. She has heard from parents in her ward offering to buy supplies for their schools or providing them at a reduced cost, if they have businesses that deal with these items.

There is a growing concern that schools could have different levels of protection from the coronavirus depending on the neighbourhood, said Ms. Chernos Lin, who is also a trustee representative on the TDSB’s Parent Involvement Advisory Committee. She said public dollars should pay for things such as proper ventilation in schools, windows that open and water-bottle refill stations.

On the flip side, if families are willing to donate to their schools, the board could potentially redirect limited funding to schools that wouldn’t be able to afford the extras during this time, she said. “But,” Ms. Chernos Lin cautioned, “we have to make sure we are not providing better quality air or better safety measures to [schools with] wealthier families.”

Darren Cargill, a physician in Windsor, said he is in discussions with the principal at his son’s elementary school about buying an air purifier and HEPA filters for the classroom. It would cost roughly $1,000. Other parents have also expressed interest in doing the same for other rooms in the school.

Dr. Cargill acknowledges that such offers can lead to inequities in public education. “I want to help,” he said, adding that school boards can use the limited funds to equip other schools where parents may not have the ability to raise funds. “If I have the ability to organize my school to do this, fantastic. ... If there are schools in a lower socio-economic area, that’s where the government needs to step in.”

At Dovercourt Public School in Toronto’s west end, there have been several conversations among parents about fundraising and the role of school councils, said Roxanne Wright, who is a co-chair and has two children attending the school.

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A group of parents have volunteered to work with teachers and the principal on how to use the outdoor yard for learning. Ms. Wright said that she expects the school council will hear from the principal about how much that will cost, and whether it could mean purchasing canopy tents and bins to store items outside. Ms. Wright said the government should bear the responsibility for reopening schools safely, but her school council will help teachers as much as it can.

“It will be a challenge to reassess our finances, project what we expect to bring in and weigh that against the kind of investments we want to make in the school. We wouldn’t want to hold back funds if they’re needed to make classrooms safe,” Ms. Wright said.

“But we definitely don’t want that to be the expectation, that schools who have [school advisory councils] with money in the bank are going to be safer than others,” she added.

Globe health columnist André Picard and senior editor Nicole MacIntyre discuss the many issues surrounding sending kids back to school. André says moving forward isn't about there being no COVID-19 cases, but limiting their number and severity through distancing, smaller classes, masks and good hygiene. The Globe and Mail

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