OTTAWA — The growing level of anxiety experienced by parents and teachers over reopening schools during a global pandemic have reached the ears of highest level of government — shortly before children head back to the classrooms.
The federal government will provide up to $2 billion in additional funding to help provinces and territories prepare for a safe return of children to classes this fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday.
That is on top of $19 billion already promised to help them cope with the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their economies and health-care systems.
Education is not a federal responsibility and provinces are responsible for their own school reopening plans, Trudeau said, but he wanted to calm parents' fears by ensuring the provinces have additional resources to make schools safe.
"Over the past week or so I've heard from so many Liberal MPs, so many parents across the country who are still extremely worried about how that reopening is going to go," Trudeau said at a news conference held in a Toronto school.
"We've seen the provinces put forward plans for that reopening and they are confident that they are doing what is necessary, but parents were still concerned. So we said, 'Let's give the provinces even more resources to be able to do everything that is necessary to keep our kids safe.'"
The money will flow through a new fund set up specifically for school reopenings.
Trudeau informed premiers of the new funding during a conference call Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, he said provinces and territories will have flexibility to spend the money as they see fit to bolster their efforts to ensure schools can reopen this fall as safely as possible.
"This money coming in to be able to top up the plans that the premiers have set forward is going to be something that will give people confidence, not just in the safety of their kids, but in their ability to get back to work and our economy to get going once again," he said.
Schools have been shut down across the country since the novel coronavirus started sweeping across Canada in mid-March.
Most provinces and territories have announced specific plans on reopening, with some moving to a full, regular return to classes, and others trying staggered start and end times and lower class sizes to help with physical distancing.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he heard premiers voicing concerns about Ottawa stepping on provincial toes with this funding, but that he tried relay to his counterparts his belief that the money is being offered in good faith.
"The prime minister, when he spoke to me on Friday, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, 'Doug, I understand this isn't my jurisdiction, but I just want to help.' And we're grateful for that and I want to thank the prime minister for that," Ford said.
The money will come in two instalments — the first this fall and more available early next year — to ensure support for the whole school year.
Each province and territory will receive a $2 million base amount, with the rest allocated according to the number of children between the ages of four and 18.
The federal government is also providing an additional $112 million to help schools in First Nations communities, where core funding for schools is a federal responsibility.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the money is earmarked for the safe reopening of schools, but local communities will have "wide flexibility" to respond to individual needs.
"As we've done with most of our funding allotments to ensure that we're deferring to local decision-making — and that's a very important aspect of it, because it's a cornerstone of self-determination in education — parents want to see that their kids are well served," Miller told The Canadian Press in an interview Wednesday.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation raised concerns last week about a lack of funding to help First Nations schools protect against COVID-19, accusing the federal government of ignoring its urgent requests for supplies and aid for its northern Ontario communities.
Acting Ontario Regional Chief Alvin Fiddler said Wednesday the new funding commitment is welcome, but the delay in addressing the organization's requests has been "very distressing to leadership across the region." Fiddler is also the grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
"We require immediate information on the proposed distribution of funds by the federal government," he added. The organization had asked for $33 million.
Miller said the federal government was working quickly to secure this funding and that there was never a question that First Nations would receive money to keep students and teachers safe.
"I think trust has been an important theme throughout this to ensure that communities don't feel like they were being left behind. So I'm glad that we are public about this and are stepping up to support First Nations on reserve."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he believes federal money given to the provinces for schools should come with explicit plans to address school safety, including mandating smaller class sizes.
"We need to make sure that money is actually going toward making schools safer and that there's a plan in place," he said.
Singh also says Ottawa must address a pressing need for child-care spaces with funding of up to $10 billion over four years.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26. 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press