Many parents in Prince George's School District 57 are upset that, starting Monday, some of their children will be transferred to new classrooms in a move officials say is necessary after a sharp decrease in enrolment due to COVID-19.
On Thursday, families at 15 schools in Prince George, Mackenzie and the Robson Valley were informed that because of lower-than-expected enrolment across the district, classes are being reconfigured.
"We just got a letter from the school saying, 'We know this might be upsetting to some families but this is what we're doing," said Elsie Wiebe, whose eight-year-old son will be entering a new classroom. "He's just been exposed to all these [families] and now it's potentially more."
The school district says it has recorded a 425-person decline in enrolment at a time when it had been anticipating continued growth. That number is also expected to grow in coming weeks as more parents choose to pull their kids out of the classroom.
"I know the impact this has on families and this is far from ideal," said school district board chair Tim Bennett. "But we're funded per student, and 425 students is a large portion of our budget."
While some of that loss is offset by an increase in distance learning, the district only receives an average of $6,100 per distance student compared to $7,560 for in-class students. With a 126-person increase in distance learning, the district is still down $2.3 million.
Last year, total student enrolment in the district was about 13,000.
Bennett said the remaining decline in enrolment can be attributed to children moving to other districts and parents opting to pursue homeschooling or private school options.
Families who are keeping their kids home for now but have indicated they plan to send them back later in the year are not being counted in the decline.
Superintendent Anita Richardson said she doesn't anticipate layoffs as teachers and staff will instead be transferred to support roles for distance learning. However, teachers on limited contracts may be reduced to being on the teachers-on-call list.
Bennett said he understands the "anxiety and stress" families are feeling, and said the district is doing everything it can to minimize how many people are impacted. He also said all schools are receiving a deep clean over the weekend, which includes a day off on Friday.
Wiebe questioned why the province isn't providing more funding to allow schools to maintain smaller class sizes.
"Where does the COVID money go?" she asked. "What about keeping kids safe?"
Bennett said during an election, it's difficult to lobby the province for additional funding, but said the district would be doing everything it can to keep kids safe.
"There's not a minister right now that we can advocate to," he said. "But we will continue to do what we can with the budget to ensure that we are running a balanced organization."