Massive job cuts are predicted in both the Burnaby and Coquitlam school districts, as boards work to balance budgets during an ongoing pandemic that has stunted one of their main revenue streams.
In Burnaby, 38 full-time positions could be cut permanently and 151 additional layoff notices have been delivered. While in Coquitlam, 293 layoff notices have gone out.
"The strain of the pandemic on the school system can't be overlooked," says Daniel Tetrault, the president of the Burnaby Teachers' Association.
Both the Burnaby and Coquitlam teachers' associations are calling on the provincial government to provide COVID-19 relief funding to stave off potential cuts.
Lack of international program revenue
The Burnaby and Coquitlam school districts rely heavily on revenue created by robust international education programs, say the associations.
"The district, over time, has come to rely on the international program to make up for the shortfall in provincial funding and, with COVID, this program has taken a significant hit," Tetrault told Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.
"I guess the big question is why are big school districts like Burnaby having to depend on an international student program in the first place to fund public education?"
International education program tuition made up 10 per cent of Burnaby's total operating revenue in the 2019/2020 school year, while it represented nine per cent in Coquitlam.
The programs pumped more than $25 million each into the districts, but that revenue has since collapsed.
Despite the layoffs, Ken Christensen, the president of the Coquitlam Teachers' Association, says he is confident the jobs will be restored in Coquitlam, with teachers redeployed to other positions around the district. But he says it causes huge disruptions that can't be ignored.
"The impact of this on people's mental health is not something that you can overstate," said Christensen.
"I've been teaching a long time and I've never seen anything like this in terms of the stresses and strains that have been put on the system this year."
However, the Ministry of Education denies there are funding shortfalls.
"We are investing $437 million more annually to operate K-12 schools in B.C., for a total of $7.1 billion – that's a 6 per cent increase over last year," it said in a statement.
"We will continue to work with public health officials as they review what health and safety measures will be necessary in September."
It says the 2021 budget provides more that $1.22 billion in additional operating funding for B.C. schools over the next three years.
Last year, both the provincial and federal governments provided one-time COVID-19 relief to districts in B.C. Tetrault and Christensen say this funding, as well as surpluses in budgets, meant that school districts could avoid major cuts. But this year, some job losses appear inevitable.
"Now, we're facing these cuts, which means larger classrooms, less one-on-one time, less extra support for kids with challenges," said Tetrault, citing positions like reading recovery teachers, which now face the chopping block.
"These are teachers that work one-on-one with students who have challenges with reading, so, coming out of the pandemic, these students are the ones that are going to be more behind."
He says COVID relief is usually directed toward the economy and businesses but warns that if the public education system isn't included in that discussion, there could be both short- and long-term consequences.