Manitoba teachers say education system in danger of ‘imminent collapse’ without provincial support

Nearly 500 teachers in Manitoba have signed a letter calling for more support from the provincial government, saying they’re at their breaking point trying to educate during the pandemic.

“We’re two or three different jobs at once, and it’s not sustainable. The whole system’s going to crumble as teachers cannot keep doing what they’re doing,” said Jennifer Paszkat, who teaches music in the Pembina Trails School Division, and is one of the teachers who signed the letter as part of a group calling themselves Advocacy for Education Manitoba. 

“We’re short substitute teachers. Often principals and vice-principals are having to cover classes.”

Advocacy for Education Manitoba — made up of hundreds of teachers, school leaders and support staff from across the province — penned a letter to Premier Brian Pallister and Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen on Sunday calling for “resources and decisive leadership.”

“This is a system in crisis and our staff are beyond exhaustion — they are broken,” the group said in a news release.

Goertzen is holding a news conference at 11 a.m. CT, and is expected to provide an update on supports for remote learning. CBC will live stream the news conference here and on Facebook, Twitter and CBC Gem.

Advocacy for Education Manitoba is requesting funding for reduced class sizes, mental health supports for students and teachers, digital equity for students and staff who need access to devices and the internet, and prompt contact tracing and testing for staff and students, among other things.

The 490 signatories of the letter say the system has reached a critically unsustainable point during the second wave of the pandemic.

Manitoba had recorded 416 cases of COVID-19 in schools as of Friday — 310 of those cases were students, and 106 were staff members.

The province currently has four active COVID-19 outbreaks at schools, with one declared over.

The government has posted dozens of possible exposures at schools across Manitoba on its website, including more than 150 exposures at schools in the Winnipeg health region since Sept. 25.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society said it supports the initiative by Advocacy for Education.

“MTS has repeatedly called for the release of federal funds intended specifically to address our schools’ pandemic-related needs. While that money has flowed in other provinces, it has trickled, at best, here in Manitoba,” said James Bedford, the teachers’ society president.

“Our teachers are drowning. Our principals, vice-principals, clinicians and school staff are drowning. What will it take for the province to release funding intended to keep our schools safe?”

‘Breaking down in tears’

A trustee with the Winnipeg School Division agrees that help is desperately needed to support teachers.

Chris Broughton, chair of finance and personnel for the Winnipeg School Division, said they have hired nearly 100 more teachers this year to help deal with absenteeism and the requirement to split classrooms into several smaller ones. But it’s still not enough.

“Teachers are extraordinarily stressed. I know that there are teachers sitting in their cars at lunch because they have nowhere else to go and they’re crying, they’re breaking down in tears,” he said.

“We’re deeply concerned for their mental health.”

The division has been spending  to mitigate some of the challenges being juggled by teachers and to make sure that “wellness is front of mind for all of our staff,” Broughton said.

“But at the end of the day, the workload that our teachers are facing is absolutely incredible and is unsustainable.”

The federal government gave the province more than $85 million for education, to pay for extra teachers and personal protective equipment, but Broughton said the Winnipeg School Division has not received any of that money.

“Right now, the Winnipeg School Division is spending and tracking [those expenses] and the province will look at reimbursing for those costs in the future,” he said.

“And we have no guarantees that we will see a dime from this provincial government.”

Advocacy for Education says much is at risk if the province doesn’t take action soon.

“We risk losing incredibly valuable human capital when educators and our education system collapses from the pressures of our current conditions,” the letter says.

“We cannot sustain and carry this system without critical support.”

As part of its efforts to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the province announced last week it is launching a digital ad campaign about how the virus spreads.

Some teachers see that as a slap in the face, Paszkat said.

“The government needs to put money and resources towards education instead of putting it towards ads to tell people to stay home,” she said.

Teachers are prepping for multiple jobs because they are being pulled in every direction, which leads to a trickle-down effect, Paszkat said.

Students with special needs are not getting the help they require because their teachers are being redeployed into regular classroooms, she said.

“I would be very upset with the government if I had a child who had exceptional needs. I would be upset that my child is not getting the supports they need,” Paszkat said. “And who’s [to] blame? That would be the government. It wouldn’t be the teacher’s fault nor would it be the school’s fault.”

If money were provided for resources, this wouldn’t be the case, she said.

She wants Goertzen to acknowledge the federal government education funding has not been spent.

“The government needs to step up and put the money to where it needs to go,” she said.

“We’ve reached the beginning of the breaking point.”

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