Hamilton public board asks province for funding to help cover COVID costs

·3 min read

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is asking the province for additional funding to support the safety of students and staff as COVID-19 cases rise in Hamilton.

At a meeting Monday, the board approved a motion to request a share of the $50-million in federal funding given to Ontario’s Ministry of Education early in September which was designated for school boards in COVID-19 hot spots.

Roughly $35-million of that funding has since been doled out to school boards in Toronto, Ottawa and areas in the GTA, though the remaining $15-million has yet to be issued to other boards.

“We would like to have access to that funding, and we’re frustrated that despite the increase in the spread of COVID-19 in Hamilton, we still don’t have the additional funding,” said Alex Johnstone, chair of the HWDSB.

Hamilton has seen a surge of 219 new COVID-19 infections over the last four days, from Saturday to Tuesday.

The increase, which has been underway since early October, puts the city on track to reach “orange” alert level — one alert level above the current yellow — that threatens further closures and restrictions.

According to Johnstone, school boards that have received federal funding are located in areas deemed to be COVID-19 hot spots: Ottawa, York, Peel Region and Toronto.

With cases rapidly on the rise in Hamilton, the HWDSB could soon find itself in a hotspot as well.

“We’re in a unique situation where, while we’re not officially declared a hotspot, we are experiencing significant increases to community spread, and yet we’re not being given access to additional dollars,” said Johnstone.

The board says it hasn’t heard from the province since making its request.

In an email, ministry spokesperson Caitlin Clark declined to comment, offering that the ministry will “have more to say in the coming weeks.”

The HWDSB is seeking the funding to help offset its projected budget shortfall next spring, currently estimated at $15.9-million.

In a letter to the ministry, the board requested funding for the cost of replacing teachers who are sick or are required to self-isolate due to COVID-19, and asked that its funding be tied to the board’s projected enrolment numbers rather than its actual numbers.

In October, the board discovered it had 1,700 fewer students enrolled in classes than projected, meaning it would lose funding from the province.

The enrolment numbers affect the amount of funding the board receives from the province’s Grants for Student Needs (GSN) program, which typically offers money to boards for a variety of needs including special education, professional development for education, language programming, equipment and supplies, and more.

The enrolment shortfall resulted in a loss of $15.2-million for the board.

Now, the board faces a deficit of $15.9-million by the end of the school year that must be offset by cutbacks, reserve funds or new-found government funding.

The board is hoping the ministry will help cover part of its deficit, Johnstone said.

“If our board is forced to pass a deficit budget, that will mean cuts to future programs for students,” Johnstone said.

“That’s how students end up paying for the pandemic, when we’re forced to consider reducing programs and support at exactly the time that our most vulnerable students need it most.”

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator