The Alberta government is giving schools districts $45 million in new funding so students in grades 1-3 can get extra help for the reading and math lessons they may have missed while learning at home over the past 15 months.
School boards will have to apply for the money based on assessments of students performed this fall.
Districts can decide for themselves how to use the money over the 16-week period, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said Friday.
"They may choose to hire additional teachers," LaGrange said at a news conference.
"They may choose to hire substitute teachers to relieve teachers so they can do this targeted ... one-to-one or small group intervention with those students that require those supports or they may hire additional [educational assistants]."
The province estimates as many as 50,000 students may need the assistance.
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman blamed LaGrange and the United Conservative government for creating the problem — by not responding quickly enough to each wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and by forcing children to toggle back and forth between classroom and at-home learning.
The province is targeting the money to the youngest elementary school students because lags in math and reading could impede their progress in later grades.
Hoffman said the supports need to go further.
"Every student needs this money," she said. "Every student has been impacted by the gaps in terms of their ability to focus, their mental health, their ability to relax and learn confidently, to have reasonable class sizes."
Nathan Ip, vice-chair of the Edmonton public school board, said in a tweet that $45 million divided among 61 Alberta school divisions isn't enough money to manage the problem.
"[Edmonton Public Schools] alone will grow by 2,700 students this year," he wrote. "Consider that education budgets have been frozen over the last two years."
Board reps want to see 'action'
The announcement came one day after Children's Services Minister Rebecca Schulz announced a new panel to examine the impact of the pandemic on children's mental health and learning.
In an interview with CBC News, Ip said an information-gathering exercise is worthwhile but it has to come with funding to implement any recommendations.
"If this is a major part of their plan, I would say that that's not adequate," he said. "What we really want to see is action, particularly funding and supports with a frozen educational budget."
Trina Boymook, board chair with Elk Island Public Schools, is happy with the panel as it will meet some long-standing concerns among school officials.
She is also pleased Education's work will include other ministries, like Children's Services.
Like Ip, Boymook is hoping the government takes quick action and provides resources to support any recommendations that come out of the panel's work so the effects of the pandemic on children can be dealt with as soon as possible.
"How long will we be trying to fill in the gaps as best as we can, even though we may not be the necessarily the right individuals to be doing it?" she said.
"And how quickly can these actually be actioned and get our kids and our families supported?"
The region covered by Elk Island Public Schools includes urban areas like Sherwood Park and schools in smaller communities like Vegreville, Lamont and Andrew.
Boymook hopes the panel will look at ways to provide more equitable access to supports for students in rural areas.