Education glaringly absent in Ontario’s 2021-22 budget
In the spring of 2019, when the provincial government released its budget, K to 12 education took up a whole chapter. At the time, the then Minister of Finance named education as a key priority for the province, saying “In many ways, the future of our province is tied to the quality of our education system.”
In the speech announcing the 2021-22 budget, there was little mention of education, and the budget itself appeared to signal that there would be no major changes to base education funding, and no repeat of the infusions of funding provided to school boards to deal with the ongoing challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The increase to overall funding for education basically matches the rate of inflation. While there was no reference to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on schools, the budget did include some details about funding for education in the 2021/22 school year, including:
- $980 million in direct payments to parents. Parents will receive $400 for each child aged 0 to Grade 12, and $500 for children and youth 21 years old or younger who have special needs.
- $13.2 million to expand the Specialist High Skills Major program
- $1.4 billion to build and upgrade schools
- $20 million to improve remote learning technology including improvements to connectivity within school buildings
For the most part, the message from the province to school boards is that they should plan as if schools will be back to normal in the fall. Boards were forewarned in an email from the Deputy Minister not to expect a repeat of the COVID-related infusion of funding from this year.
Supports provided during the 2020-2021 school year
The Deputy Minister’s message stated that the government made available over $1.6 billion in temporary resources to support school boards. This amount included federal funding of close to $800 million and school boards accessing their reserves for more than $400 million. The over $1.6 billion in temporary resources allowed school boards to hire more than 7,000 one-time additional staff for the 2020-2021 school year. The additional resources included principals, vice-principals, teachers, educational assistants, mental health workers, early childhood educators, professional/paraprofessional staff, custodians and other staff.
Planning for the unknown
It is impossible to know whether the pandemic will be fully under control by the fall of 2021. Vaccination plans are still evolving and currently children under 16 cannot be vaccinated at all.
Because of these unknowns, boards must plan for all contingencies – virtual learning for all or some students or combinations of virtual and in-person learning; the need to keep groups of students together (cohorting); high schools with small class sizes and students learning half-time in school, half-time from home; the need for special programs and/or classes to support students struggling with pandemic-related learning loss etc. None of these models fit the standard funding formula and require extra resources. Some boards are now running deficits and face challenges planning for the coming school year.
Many COVID-related challenges remain
While the details of funding for school boards will not come until the Grants for Student Needs and the Priorities and Partnership Funding are announced in April, the key question is the level of support that will be provided by the Ministry to cover the costs of staff and resources necessary to offset the potential ongoing impact of COVID-19.
Devil is in the details
More will be known when the details of funding for school boards are released, but boards must plan and adjust staffing numbers in the meantime. By all accounts, the impact of COVID on students will continue into the next school year and beyond.