Even though the Yukon has no active COVID-19 cases, and has recorded just 15 confirmed positives, the pandemic still tinged most of the debate during the legislative assembly's first full week.
Just as every shopping trip or social interaction now requires us to make epidemiological calculations when we go to a store or restaurant, policy questions are often COVID-19 questions, even when they're not immediately about the infectious disease itself.
Nowhere was that more clear than during question period in the legislature this week. Yukon's schools have thankfully remained free of COVID-19 thus far, but the pandemic has still managed to disrupt nearly every aspect of the Yukon's education system. That's why opposition MLAs had plenty to ask Education Minister Tracey-Anne McPhee.
First is the budget: the education department was one of only two departments to see its spending drop in the fall supplementary budget. (The other was Highways and Public Works, which saw spending drop by $10.5 million, because the department put off $22 million in capital spending even as operational costs spiked.)
Education spending is down $634,000. That's not much, considering the department's overall budget is $217 million. But it still had NDP MLA Liz Hanson and Yukon Party education critic Scott Kent calling for that money to be put back into COVID-19 prevention in schools, or returning high school students, who are currently attending half-days all week, to full-day classes.
"We know that educators and parents have identified the need to increase the number of educational assistants and provide greater mental health supports for students," Hanson said. "We have heard concerns from parents and teachers about a variety of shortcomings with the return-to-school plans."
McPhee said the drop in spending was simply the result of the April decision to shut schools down and have kids continue their studies at home. That meant a drop in overhead costs. And, McPhee added, departmental travel basically stopped for several weeks.
'This minister has continued to drag her feet,' opposition critic says
The Yukon Party also pressed McPhee on the status of $4.1 million in federal funding aimed at helping schools reopen safely. Kent sought details on where that cash will go, suggesting some of it should go toward resuming full-day classes.
"Over 40 days later, the government still won't tell us how they are spending that money," he said. "Despite jurisdictions across the country figuring this out right away, this minister has continued to drag her feet."
McPhee said that money will go to, among other things, more personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and janitorial staff, more desks and whiteboards, as well as health and safety training for staff. But it was her statement that the money may not have arrived yet that had Kent's colleague, Lake Laberge MLA Brad Cathers, up in arms.
He said it was "both surprising and concerning." It's perhaps half surprising. The original government news release reads that half the money was to come at the time in August and half in January.
"I have no concern whatsoever that the commitment from the federal government has been made and that those funds are on their way to the Yukon territory," McPhee said. "Maybe they've arrived. As I said, those checks don't get opened by me."
Mad about MAD
The Liberals also continue to take heat over their decision to move the Music, Arts and Drama (MAD) program from the Wood Street Centre downtown to a portable at Porter Creek Secondary. That move was protested by the program's students and parents at the time and they're still, uh, mad about it.
Students said this week they face bullying at Porter Creek and the new space is woefully inadequate. To top it all off, parents complained this week that school staff removed a bunch of the program's supplies from a storage closet, destination unknown, and changed the locks.
"No notice was given and no permission asked," said NDP Leader Kate White.
McPhee acknowledged that may have been a mistake by the department. But she would not offer any details about possible future locations for the MAD program: students have called for an alternative site, such the Guild Hall or the Yukon Arts Centre, to host the program. The Yukon Party's Kent asked McPhee to confirm the program would eventually return to Wood Street.
Speaking to reporters later, McPhee appeared to lose patience with this line of questioning. She said her department is looking at future options for MAD, including the Guild Hall and arts centre, but she would not say that the goal is to return MAD to Wood Street.
"If I say black the opposition will say white, if I say white, they say black. That's their job, that's great. I have no trouble with that," McPhee said. "The issue is that I'm taking criticism and our government is taking criticism for having decided that this MAD program should have opened up at Porter Creek Secondary...."
"What I'm hoping and what I'm encouraging and what our department is doing is working with teachers and administrators that work in this area to determine what is the best solution going forward."
This answer likely won't satisfy either MAD students and parents or the opposition. And these questions, rather like COVID-19 itself, won't be going away any time soon.