COVID-19 hits teacher jobs in Coquitlam school district

International student enrolment expected to plummet in wake of global pandemic, layoffs expected for the first time in three years for teachers in Port Coquitlam, Coquitlam and Port Moody schools

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a deep bite out of School District 43 finances, resulting in teacher layoffs for the first time in three years.

With entire countries in lockdown and foreign travel cancelled to slow the pandemic, 30% fewer foreign students from Asia, South America and Europe are expected to enrol in local schools, meaning SD43 will need fewer teachers, as well.

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Layoffs, which have not been required while international education and other revenues held steady, will now happen this spring for dozens of teachers, just as the COVID-19 pandemic cuts a swath in the household finances of thousands of Tri-City residents.

“We don’t want to scare people,” acknowledged Coquitlam Teachers’ Association president Ken Christensen, who said the layoff and recall process can be stressful and this year takes place just as teachers are dealing with a new virtual school reality.

But he said there are a lot of mitigating factors, such as retirements, that can reduce the job cut.

In all, as many as 37 teaching positions could be cut to balance the budget, but to get to that number, many more teachers have to be laid off to get to those lowest in seniority.

“I think we could have done it this year (not have had layoffs) again, but COVID just blew every plan apart,” he said.

With COVID-19 hitting the district’s finances, SD43 is planning for a slow rebuild of the program, once travel restrictions and visa offices re-open.

However, SD43 treasurer and CFO Chris Nicolls said the program isn’t being wound up and no layoffs are anticipated in the international education department because students are re-enrolling for September, and more students could arrive in 2021.

“We would have an uptick in international education enrolment in second semester if things improve,” Nicolls predicted.

Still the drop in revenue in recent years is substantial, with SD43 pulling in $37 million in 2017/18, at its height dropping to $35.7 million in 2018/19, and further anticipated reductions to $30.2 million this year and $24.2 million in 20/21.

SD43 typically generates a surplus from these funds of up to $5 million and uses the money to smooth dips in provincial funding or for new initiatives such as technology. Nicolls expects a reduced surplus next year.

But it’s not only reduced international education revenues that are hurting SD43’s bottom line.

Budget figures released during a public meeting on Zoom Tuesday, show that $2.5 million in provincial funding is being diverted to smaller rural schools, resulting in financial challenges for the district in 2020/21.

Later, Nicolls explained that 42 teachers are being cut because of reduced international education revenues, and another 20 because of the change in provincial money.

However, the district will be applying for classroom enhancement funding for 25 teachers because of smaller class sizes needed to address the needs of more students with special needs, including those on the autism spectrum, who are enrolling in the district.

As well 10 more education assistants will be hired for next year.

“We still need to support all the children,” Nicolls said.

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