Alberta announces new funding for school maintenance, no word yet on fall return

The Alberta government is hoping school divisions might be able to take advantage of empty buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic to get some maintenance and renewal projects off the ground.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced Wednesday an extra $250 million to be given out to school divisions across the province to help them with maintenance projects like building upgrades, electrical work and mechanical work.

LaGrange said the money is not only a boost for the schools themselves, but also for the overall economy as it’s expected the work will created about 3,750 jobs.

“Every school division will be receiving funding,” LaGrange said.

“This is intended to allow school divisions to complete even more critical maintenance and renewal than they had planned to do during this year’s infrastructure and maintenance renewal program.”

LaGrange said the divisions have until June 1 to send the government their proposed “shovel-ready” projects they believe can be done between June and October.

It’s hoped the schools can take projects that were planned for some time in the future and bump the timelines up. Because students won’t be returning to traditional classes for the rest of the school year, LaGrange said some of those projects could start right away.

This funding is not meant to replace or defer existing projects school divisions are working on.

The projects, which will cost between $100,000 to $2.5 million, must align with the Department of Education’s infrastructure, maintenance and renewal criteria, LaGrange said. Each division also has to report back to the department with the number of jobs their projects will create.

The work could include things upgrades to roofs, doors, school exteriors, lighting, plumbing or interior improvements. LaGrange said she expects the schools will be thinking about re-entry following the pandemic as they select their projects.

Education Critic Sarah Hoffman said while the money is good news, it’s not enough to quell the real concerns she’s hearing from Alberta parents — which have more to do with teaching staff and in-school supports rather than infrastructure.

“Of course we want safe, well-lit, dry schools, that’s a given,” Hoffman said, however she pointed out that $250 million spread out over dozens of school divisions across Alberta isn’t a lot to work with, referencing that during her time with Edmonton Public Schools, the maintenance budget was roughly $1 billion.

She said the fact the announcement is not being tied at all to the COVID-19 pandemic, other than the timing, is missing the mark on parents’ real concerns about sending children back to school; such as how door handles will be kept clean and how water fountains might be used.

Hoffman also criticized LaGrange’s celebration of the fact this announcement will create temporary jobs after 20,000 educational staff were recently laid off.

‘Too early to tell’ what will happen this fall

As for what re-entry will look like — if it even happens in the fall — LaGrange said it’s “too early to tell.”

“We are m​aking good progress with all of the education partners and hopefully we’ll be able to share something in the near future,” she said, adding that they’ve been in constant talks with the government and chief medical officer of health to help guide their decision making.

In an emailed statement on Tuesday, ministry of education press secretary Colin Aitchison said the department is also working with the Alberta School Boards Association, parents through the School Councils’ Association, the Alberta Teachers Association, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta and individual school divisions to come up with a plan to bring students back to school.

“The plan will consider conditions for three different scenarios for the start of the next school year: classes resume, schools are open for classes with some health considerations that affect operations, and schools remain closed for classes with at home learning continuing,” Aitchison said.

“School authorities will be provided with enough time to prepare their schools as we transition into the 2020-21 school year, and our aim is to communicate which scenario will proceed prior to Aug. 1, 2020.”

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