In a crisis, the main thing we want our government to do is ensure that people are safe and being looked after.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Alberta, I was impressed with the government’s initial response. They provided daily status updates, offered clear directions and advice, made sensible decisions and took reasonable, thoughtful actions.
When teachers said that schools would not be able to support hygiene and distancing requirements, the government listened and ultimately came to the right conclusion to cancel classes. As the educational continuity plan was developed, government officials reached out to key stakeholders, gathered input and listened genuinely to questions and concerns.
While the situation was challenging and not everything was perfect (situations like these are never going to be perfect), the government was showing effective leadership and offered confidence that we would get through this together.
That leadership cratered on the afternoon of Saturday, March 28.
By a news release and a tweet, 25,000 education workers were told they’d be losing their jobs.
The decision and how it was announced was devoid of consideration and compassion for the people it affected.
But frankly, it was just a bad decision: bad for the economy, bad for well-being and bad for education.
I understand fully that many businesses are struggling and revenue is rapidly shrinking or drying up completely. Many businesses are being forced to make tough decisions that result in layoffs. My heart goes out to the people affected and the business leaders who have to make those tough decisions.
But the Alberta government didn’t have to do this. The government had capacity to provide stability to its employees at a difficult time. The amount of money saved by this decision amounts to less than one-quarter of one per cent of the province’s annual budget. Although every other province has also cancelled classes, none of the other governments have laid off staff like this.
Alberta’s very fragile economic situation is not helped, but rather it is seriously harmed, by adding an estimated one per cent of the total workforce to the unemployment line. The government should have shown leadership to other employers by stressing the need to keep as many people employed as possible, given the circumstances. It is not a coincidence that just after this was announced, Alberta’s billionaire-owned professional hockey teams laid off staff that they were earlier shamed into keeping employed.
When everything else in life is changing, and when the fear of uncertainty and health risks are looming large, income stability goes a long way toward supporting mental health. If people can be supported, they should be. Some are saying that the public sector should not be immune, but that misses the point completely. Every job that can be saved must be saved. Every person that can be supported must be supported.
All of this is aside, of course, from the fact that these employees had work to do. Many school boards were employing education assistants, and even school bus drivers, to help support student learning. Some school divisions were prepared to pay substitute teachers based on an averaging of previous days worked, and they would be needed to step in for teachers who, I don’t know, might become sick during a pandemic. Instead they were all given pink slips.
A release from the Lethbridge School Division captured it well. They designed an education continuity plan that included educational assistants as an “integral part” of providing education to students.
“The role of EAs, under teacher supervision and planning, was to connect with a breadth of students including students with exceptionalities, English Second Language students, students without technology and other students at risk. The work plans developed for EAs included a variety of responsibilities to ensure that ALL students had access to learning while schools remain closed for students.”
These times call for a steady hand on the tiller. They call for leadership that instills confidence and makes everyone feel supported.
If you are also concerned, visit www.ibelieveinpubliced.ca/call_your_mla and call your MLA.
I was prepared to give a good grade to this government, but with this one decision, they completely and utterly failed. ❚
I welcome your comments—contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.