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School board, teachers unions react to federal funding

Local teachers union representatives from both the public and Catholic school boards are still wary of the upcoming school year despite more funding from the federal government.

Rob Hammond, President of the Near North Elementary teacher’s union, worries that the Near North District School Board may not benefit from the funding.

“The problem with the Near North is we get the scraps off the table. The larger boards are going to get the lion’s share of the profit here and for us, we’ll get whatever’s left over,” Hammond said.

On Wednesday, Justin Trudeau announced $2 billion of funding for provinces and territories to help with school reopening efforts. Of that $2 billion, Ontario is set to receive $763 million in two installments to cover the fall and the winter.

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The provincial government plans to spend $200 million on reopening plan implementation, $70 million on transportation – which includes reducing the number of students on school buses, $36 million to bolster remote learning and set aside $50 million for “future pandemic costs”.

Tammy Chassé, union President for Nipissing Catholic elementary teachers, says that the money does not address one of the key issues that teachers have with the return to school plan.

“I’m not convinced that we’re actually going to see this money in place. At this point, locally, the class sizes have not been reduced,” Chassé said. “To me, it’s the same as the added nurses, the added cleaning, the added custodial, the added support staff – we’re not seeing the fruits of the money.”

Chassé adds that the Nipissing Catholic Board does not plan to change class sizes based on the conversations she’s had with the board.

Jay Aspin, Chair of the Near North Board, says the money will be welcomed by his school board.

“It’s safe to say that it’s music to our ears because there’s a lot of extra costs in this,” Aspin said, adding that the return to school plans are constantly evolving on all levels. “This will help with those added costs.”

Both Aspin and Hammond say that the Near North Board is expecting around 20 percent of students to be held at home for virtual learning. The province has designated $36 million to improve remote learning, including designating a principal to oversee the school’s implementation of it.

Hammond says that the issue for Near North students staying home will be access to the internet.

“Some families simply do not have access to high-speed internet so their children are going to be disadvantaged. Plus, parents are working from home, so can they donate 230 minutes of their day to supervise their child’s online learning?” he questioned.

Outbreak Response

The provincial government has also outlined its strategy to handle COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, appointing Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s Chief Coroner, as the Coordinator for the Provincial Outbreak Response. If a school records two lab-processed positive COVID-19 tests, then an outbreak at the school will be declared.

Aspin is on board with bringing in additional leadership to handle outbreaks.

“I am heartened with the decision by the province in engaging Dr. Huyer,” he said. “The name of the game with outbreaks is to identify them and contain them. I’m pleased in our region that we have a very excellent track record with dealing with COVID.”

Hammond doesn’t think that having an outbreak response plan will help relieve people’s anxiety about returning to school.

“Will it relieve people’s apprehension? I don’t think so. I think people are very concerned that we’re not observing the social bubbles,” he said, adding that he expects there to be regular school closures this year because of either outbreaks or lack of staff.

Chassé has an issue with the timing of the province’s plan and says there’s not enough information for teachers to feel comfortable and safe.

The school year is set to begin the week after Labour Day, with the exact date differing depending on the school board.

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