How much COVID help did the Ford government give Ontario schools? An analysis reveals the real numbers

Posted on March 23, 2021 in Education Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – News/GTA

Emergency relief money to help fight the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario classrooms allowed each school in the province to hire an average of only 1.5 new staff members in 2020, a new analysis shows.

Hires ranged from custodians to administrative staff to teachers, and equate to what critics charge was barely enough to make an overall difference.

The analysis, by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), comes after repeated promises from the provincial government and Education Minister Stephen Lecce that the safety of Ontario’s students, teachers and staff was a “top priority.”

“Did the funding that they put forth for hiring teachers really do what it was intended to do? I would say no,” said Halton District School Board Chair Andréa Grebenc. “The reality is that in our board, there were not enough teachers to spread one to every school.”

To conduct the analysis, Ricardo Tranjan, a political economist and senior researcher at the CCPA, looked at the financial statements of all of Ontario’s 72 public and Catholic school boards that were submitted to the Ministry of Education last December. The statements show that school boards hired 6,706 additional staff last year using the government’s COVID-19 funding. Of the total new hires, 3,834 were teachers, 1,117 were custodians, 286 were special education workers, 178 were mental health support staff and a further 1,291 were other education workers and administrative support staff.

If these additional hires were spread across all 4,444 schools in Ontario’s public and Catholic school boards, each school was able to add just 1.5 new staff members on average. In terms of teachers alone, that works out to less than one per school.

“The seemingly large figures the minister repeatedly touts mean very little out of context,” Tranjan said.

The financial statements also show how much money boards spent to hire these new staff members: $655 million as of Dec. 15, 2020. Of that, $304 million, or 46 per cent, came from boards’ own reserve funds or annual budgets. At least another $119 million came from the federal government out of $381 million provided by Ottawa for school safety, as announced by the province last August. That means the remaining $232 million, or just 35 per cent, came from the Ministry of Education. (The statements do not include an additional $381 million in federal funding for safe schools announced on Feb. 1 of this year).

“The provincial government hasn’t pulled its weight when it comes to pandemic funding for schools. Schools boards and the federal government picked up a huge share of the tab,” said Tranjan.

Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said funding under the government before and during the pandemic “is at the highest levels ever recorded in Ontario history.”

“We will continue to ensure investments in public education remain at historic highs, focused on mental health and learning gaps in numeracy and literacy, because our students — especially this year facing increasing difficulty from the pandemic — deserve no less,” Clark said.

She provided hiring numbers for additional teachers, teaching assistants, early childhood educators and custodians that were slightly higher than what Tranjan calculated, but these numbers include hiring happening in real time as well as anticipated hiring numbers reported by boards. (In aggregate, they still work out to about 1.6 new staff members per school). She noted the province also has hired an additional 624 public health nurses to support schools.

NDP Education critic Marit Stiles said the “proof is in the pudding” and pointed to empty classrooms that went unused as many students and their parents opted for online learning during the pandemic.

“There are classrooms all across this city and across this province that were sitting empty, closed because you need to staff appropriately if you’re going to reduce class sizes,” said Stiles, who served as a trustee in the Toronto District School Board from 2014 to 2018 before being elected to provincial parliament. “The government didn’t want to do that and we suspected all along that the only excuse there was that they were trying to save a few bucks.”

“If they had actually thrown everything at this last summer and in the fall, we would not be in the situation that we are in today.”

The Ministry of Education says there is a documented shortage of teachers in Ontario and that it has used “every reasonable tool” available to support teacher hiring, including an agreement with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation to allow retired teachers to continue to work, as well as allowing teacher candidates to work as occasional teachers. It also says educators from other provinces who hold similar credentials will be eligible to apply for temporary teaching certificates in Ontario.

A survey of the hiring figures for just a few GTA school boards gives a sense of how challenging the pandemic has been.

According to the Halton District School Board’s submissions to the ministry, the board had enough funding to hire 118 additional staff as of Dec. 15. This included 54 teachers, about one teacher for every 1,209 students or 0.5 teachers per school.

“It’s always interesting to see where the priorities lie and the fact that we didn’t even get enough in our board to even add a single teacher per school says quite a bit,” said board chair Grebenc, noting that there was no opportunity to work with the province on how best to use the space that opened up in schools when many students transitioned to virtual learning.

“My feeling is, and it has been for quite a long time, that the ministry does not treat school boards as education partners. Because if we had that opportunity to have a roundtable, these sorts of things could come out.”

The Toronto District School Board’s Dec. 15 submission shows it was able to hire a total of 712 full-time equivalent additional staff as of that date. This included 456 teachers, 97 custodians, 25 special ed. workers, and 74 remote learning staff. In terms of additional teachers, this works out to less than one per school.

The board says total teacher costs resulting from the pandemic were about $48.6 million. Of this, the board had to come up with $34.4 million of its own money, as only $14 million came from the provincial government.

“I’m willing to acknowledge that the government, as every government now, is dealing with a lack of funding and there’s going to be a huge deficit,” said TDSB Chair Alexander Brown, who nonetheless pointed out that the government has said it wants kids back in schools so that interruptions to learning will be kept to a minimum. “OK, fine. How do you do that if you don’t give us the safe environments we need with the teachers we require? Boards put teachers in place according to need and advice from public health, which is what the ministry has told us to do. But the province as principal funder of education still has to fund it.”

Brown noted that in the summer of 2020 before schools reopened, the TDSB created a $20-million plan to redeploy most teachers, librarians, and centrally assigned principals and superintendents that would have resulted in 15 students per class on average. But before the board could submit its plan, the Ministry of Education decided on another course of action that did not recognize the individual situations facing each board across Ontario, Brown said.

Tranjan’s analysis also shows that the Peel District School Board was able to hire about 316 additional full-time equivalent staff, including 72 custodians, 6 special ed. staff, and 25 remote learning staff. The board was able to hire 147 new teachers, which works out to less than one for each of the board’s more than 200 schools.

The Star sought confirmation of these numbers from the board last week, but did not hear back back by press time.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the number of teachers hired during the pandemic was a “drop in the bucket” in light of the challenges facing boards last year and that 1.5 staff per school would make “no reasonable difference.”

He pointed out that most of the funding announced by the province for COVID-19 help in schools actually came from school boards themselves or the federal government.

Last year, the Star reported on how less than a third of the $1.3 billion in COVID-19 funding the province said it was “providing” to school boards in 2020 actually came from provincial coffers. Most of it came from school boards’ reserve funds in the amount of an “unlocked” $496 million and the federal government in the amount of $381 million.

The $496 million in “unlocked” funds assumed school boards had enough money in their reserve funds to draw the equivalent of two per cent of their operating budgets for COVID-19 expenses.

Bischof called that figure “nonsense” because many boards simply didn’t have enough money in their reserve funds to use for COVID-19 expenses.

“It was already elsewhere committed or they just couldn’t access it,” he said. “So part of that number is mythical to begin with.”

Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star.

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