NDP says back to school COVID plan is muddled

After three government press conferences in a week addressing a COVID-19 back-to-school strategy, the education minister has “somehow managed to further muddle directions about school reopening in the fall,” said NDP education critic Regina-Lakeview MLA Carla Beck on Aug. 12.

Education Minister and Deputy Premier Gord Wyant announced on Tuesday that school divisions will have the ultimate say in determining what level of restrictions schools would implement. The province was recommending schools starting at Level 2 on a four-level scale, but not mandating it.

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Beck said, “As we go back to school in the fall, and also renew our calls for the convening of the Human Services Committee to get to as quickly as possible to uncover the and provide some clarity around, around this very process that we've seen so far. Yesterday I expected to hear some clear direction from the minister about masking. Instead, what we got was further confusion. We, on Friday, heard from the minister that the chief medical health officer would make the decision about when to move to Phase 1 or Phase 2 or Phase 3 or Phase 4 of the plan, and then yesterday he seemed to go back on that and leave it up to school divisions.”

She repeatedly pointed out that there are only two weeks before school starts, and these items should have been addressed at least a month ago, if not earlier.

“It feels very much like the clock is ticking. September 1 is coming upon us very, very quickly,” she said, noting parents and staff members are trying to make decisions for themselves, and their careers in the fall.

The NDP is calling for smaller class sizes. Beck said the province should provide what maximum class sizes, or at least reasonable class sizes, should be. She noted some jurisdictions have limited class sizes to 15, or cut current class sizes by half.

“That is inevitably going to require additional staffing and something that school boards simply will not be able to do within their current budgets,” she said, noting that funding had not kept up with basic growth and inflation even before the pandemic.

Beck noted she’s a former school board trustee herself, and said divisions know how big their classrooms are, what resources are available in the community and things like flexibles spaces that could be used. But they are not experts on public health.

She also called for clarity from the provincial level on a mask policy, and “that they would stand behind their decision and not throw the school divisions under the bus.”

When asked about bussing, she said flexibility about start times might come into play.

Some people are considering home schooling, she noted, but many people do not have that option and need to work. And flexible start times may not work out for them either, she noted.

Beck said she knows the minister is getting emails on this, as she’s been cc’d on many of them. “I wish that he would understand how much concern and fear and frustration is being caused by the lack of clarity,” Beck said.

“This plan has to be clear and it has to work for those families for whom in school is not the only option that they have. But perhaps their student is struggling at home, and really needs to have that interaction at the school level.”

She said, “We could have a plan that prioritizes safety. That, or we can have a cheap plan. We can't have both. This is going to require an investment from the provincial government.”