Like every other teacher in the province braving the –40 windchill in the midst of a frigid January, teaching professionals from the Horizon School Division, the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Division Schools in town, and other affiliated schools made an icy pilgrimage to Humboldt.
Hundreds of teachers made their way to a check in point at the Pioneer Hotel and then to Humboldt’s Civic Park and surrounding block, all bearing signs decrying the state of education funding in the province and the government’s apparent lack of support. Those who went to Humboldt-Watrous MLA Donna Harpauer’s office found it locked with a closed sign, noting business would resume tomorrow.
Despite the harsh conditions, each teacher walking through the checkpoint doors at the Pioneer Hotel showed the resolve and spirit of a united front.
“We’ve had 400 teachers go through the doors to register, and I can tell you, there’s lots of smiles on lots of faces,” said Shaun McEachern, director of professional learning at the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. “There’s lots of positivity in the room. The weather will not hold us back.”
The simplest contention by teachers and advocates is that there is a problem with funding in the province. McEachern spoke to the depth of the concern.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars have been taken out of public education over the last six or eight years, and it’s time to support our students, and that’s what today is about.”
The government itself has drawn a picture of increased funding over the years in terms of a dollar value. McEachern says the numbers don’t add up when it comes to what’s necessary with a growing student population and increasing demands on the school system.
“Inflation is one thing, but the Sask Party government has pushed hard to increase the population of this province. It has done that. The funding has not stayed on par with the number of students in the province. It’s more students, less funding – that's essentially where we’re at.”
Some with their eye on education say that the challenges facing teachers and students are exclusive to urban schools. The government targeting funding in the wake of the job action announcement has headed to four mostly urban school divisions to support specialized classrooms. The notion that the current impact isn’t felt in rural schools is not the case, says Vernalynn Gorrill, teacher in the small community of Bulyea and president of the Horizon Teachers’ Association.
“It is definitely a rural problem, but they seem to be giving money to the urban centres,” Gorrill stated at the strike centre. “While we do have smaller class sizes, we can give the kids one on one instruction, but they still are lacking in the extra supports they need. Speech language pathologists (SLP), we only see once every three weeks. An occupational therapist, we don’t even have. An educational psychologist, it takes 18 months before we can get someone to come out and see our students.”
It all adds up to students falling behind and falling through the cracks, Gorrill says. While teachers work to their best capacity for each child, specialized needs require expert personnel to deliver resources and programs. Despite parent advocacy and the rising voice of teachers, the situation simply isn’t improving, she notes.
Throughout the march, groups, businesses and individuals dropped off coffee, food and words of encouragement. Drivers honked their support and walkers joined in solidarity.
The sincerest hope of both McEachern, Gorrill and the many teachers who spoke on a chilly Tuesday in January is that the government-trustee team and the teachers will sit down to resolve the situation so that teachers can get back to the classroom better armed to support the province’s children.