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DSFM President to Minister of Education: “We Need Help”

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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across Manitoba, and school divisions are taking some of the hardest hits. Each division is coping in its own way, but one has come forward to say they’ve been hit particularly hard.

On November 12, Bernard Lesage, President of the Franco-Manitoban School Commission, the governing body of the Franco-Manitoban School Division (DSFM), sent a letter to Manitoba’s Minister of Education outlining the extraordinary pressure his division is facing.

“It is hard enough to find qualified teachers at this time, but to find francophone teachers is nearly impossible,” says Lesage.

Hundreds of students in the Ritchot area attend the DSFM through Gabrielle-Roy in Île-des-Chênes.

Lesage’s letter to the Minister demonstrates in detail the ways in which the DSFM is struggling to meet the needs of its students and staff amidst all the pandemic chaos. The letter cites, among other things, “a desperate shortage” of substitutes, qualified teachers, specialist teachers, and classroom space.

Two days before Lesage sent the letter, on November 10, the Minister of Education, Kelvin Goertzen, announced the hiring of 400 additional teachers and assured school divisions that they would have the opportunity to hire more.

Lesage argues that although this seems like a positive step, it is not helpful to his division. The DSFM has already hired 40 supplemental teachers and more than 150 auxiliary personnel to ensure there is an adult in every classroom to guarantee the safety and wellbeing of students.

“The well of available teachers has already dried up, consumed by COVID and general needs,” Lesage says.

He adds that the shortage of teaching staff is so dire that entire cohorts have had to be sent home to do remote learning because there simply isn’t enough staff to teach or care for them.

Because of the extra hiring taking place, the school division is also concerned about their financial situation. They are already predicting a budget deficit of more than $8 million this year.

“May we obtain the reassurance of the Minister of Education that the DSFM will not have to deplete all its reserve funds, which were dedicated to the purchase of new property to allow the construction of new schools, which are well overdue?” Lesage inquired of the Minister.

The staffing shortages are creating another problem as well: the teachers are, simply put, tired.

“These are frontline workers, but who have no medical training,” says Lesage. “They are exhausted and overwhelmed.”

Another major concern for the DSFM, says Lesage, is a lack of clear guidance from the province. He cites the following example.

“Manitoba Health will send out information saying that a two-metre distance between people is highly suggested,” he says. “But when I ask for clarification about that, I am told that it is not required, that one metre is permitted.”

Lesage indicates that this lack of clear and consistent messaging is often announced at the last minute, leaving school administrators in a state of constant confusion.

“It is nearly impossible to determine what is required and what is only highly suggested,” he says. “We feel that we are doing all we can without having all the pieces of the puzzle.”

When asked what the DSFM needs in order to ensure that their school year can move forward, Lesage replies with one word: clarity.

“All of our staff want to be here,” he says. “They think of these schools as their schools. We believe that all kids want to be in school, too, even if they don’t want to admit it… but right now we need clear guidelines and we need help.”

The Citizen reached out to Kelvin Goertzen for a comment and received the following response.

“The health and safety of Manitoba students is our highest priority and we will continue to work closely with all divisions, including DSFM, to address their needs,” reads the statement from the Minister. “Meeting the recommended health provisions requires financial support and we are ensuring that support is available to schools. Our government previously committed $100 million in Safe Schools funding to support school divisions in a variety of ways and schools are currently investing this funding in their priorities, including over $900,000 for DSFM. The department is in regular communication with the divisions and we encourage DSFM to work with the department to address specific issues as we work together to ensure that the student health, safety, and learning are the top priority. We understand this is a difficult time for students, parent, teachers, and staff and we continue to support all of our education partners to try and overcome these challenges.”

Despite this media release, Lesage says the DSFM has not received any response from Minister Goertzen since the letter was sent more than a week and a half ago.

Lesage says simply, “I have not received a response from Mr. Goertzen and will wait until I receive [one] before making a statement.”

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