By Michelle McQuigge The Canadian Press
TORONTO – Ontario’s controversial back-to school plan received an infusion of cash from the federal government on Wednesday, with at least $381 million being added to what Premier Doug Ford has already earmarked for the upcoming return to class.
The federal contribution met with widespread praise, but provincial opposition critics continued to take Ford to task over his plans for the new cash. They criticized the province’s detailed spending plans, saying they don’t include proactive steps for reducing class sizes across the province.
The additional money comes as part of a package Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in Toronto, pledging to provide as much as $2 billion to all provinces and territories to support their efforts to help students resume their studies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ontario government immediately laid out plans for $381 million in additional spending – more than it had originally dedicated to school reopening plans unveiled last month. Ottawa, meanwhile, has said its funding plan – which will be rolled out in two instalments – could eventually see the province receive as much as $763.3 million.
Ford lauded the federal contribution on Wednesday, saying the new money further strengthens a provincial plan he has defended amid consistent criticism from educators and parents alike.
“This is good news,” Ford said at his daily COVID-19 briefing. “As I told the prime minister … when it comes to keeping our kids safe, we’re all in this together.”
Ontario said it planned to spend more than a quarter of the federal cash on bolstering public health protocols in its back-to-school plan.
The province said $100 million would go toward hiring more custodial staff, improving ventilation in schools and supporting online learning.
It said it planned to spend $70 million to hire more educators and $30 million on additional personal protective equipment.
The chair of Canada’s largest school board said those funding amounts, while helpful, still fall short of what’s needed to ensure a safe reopening.
“Any one board in this province could probably use that money to hire new teachers,” said Alexander Brown of the Toronto District School Board. “It’s not going to be enough for us to do everything we want, but it’s going to help us fill some gaps.”
The province said an additional $70 million will be spent on student transportation, noting $25.5 million of that sum will be earmarked for helping to reduce the number of children on school buses.
A union representing drivers sounded the alarm on that issue, saying operators were still waiting for instructions on how best to protect themselves and their young passengers once classes resume. Unifor noted that many drivers are seniors, who are often particularly susceptible to the novel coronavirus.
The government said it will spend $12.5 million each on supports for special education and additional public health nurses. It also announced $36 million of the federal money will go towards ensuring “every school board offering virtual learning has a dedicated principal and administrative support for both its secondary and elementary virtual schools.”
An additional $50 million will be set aside to cover unanticipated future costs, the province said. Funding plans for the second instalment of federal aid will be announced in December, it added.
The province’s back-to-school plan initially pledged $309 million in new money for school boards when it was released in late July.
Critics lambasted the plan for failing to impose class size caps on elementary schools, saying such an approach would not allow students and teachers to practice physical distancing.
The plan, which makes masks mandatory for students in Grade 4 and older, also did not reduce class sizes in high schools, though two dozen boards across the province have been cleared to provide about half of their course offerings online.
Politicians and at least one school board official praised the federal government on Wednesday for trying to address the perceived shortfalls, but said Ottawa’s financial contribution highlighted the inadequacy of the province’s original vision for the academic year.
“Our children have always been worth more than (Ford) was willing to spend,” Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said. “I call on the premier to not just take this money, but to match it.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath agreed, decrying the lack of commitment to put the new federal funds towards actively reducing class sizes.
Ford has consistently defended his government’s back-to-school strategy, saying it was informed by advice from top medical experts across the country.
In response to critiques that the plan was under-funded, the province said school boards could access up to $500 million of their own reserve funds to implement further protections against COVID-19.
Ontario reported 88 new cases of COVID-19 across the province on Wednesday, along with two new deaths.
The total number of cases of the novel coronavirus now stands at 41,695, which includes 2,802 deaths and 37,863 cases classified as resolved.