EDMONTON -- The province will distribute most of the money from the federal government to school authorities on a per-student basis this school year.

About $250 million from Ottawa will be given out: some in September and again sometime in the school year. The remaining $12 million will be allocated to helping school boards meet the demand for online learning options.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced the decision on Wednesday.

"We have not hesitated to support our school authorities to ensure a safe return for our students," LaGrange said. "The safety and wellbeing of our staff and our students has been and continues to be my number one priority."

Edmonton and Calgary's public school districts -- the largest in the province -- will receive the highest amounts: $37 million and $45 million, respectively. 

Edmonton Public School Board's Trisha Estabrooks said the money was appreciated, as was the ministry's decision to let school boards decide how it's spent. 

"School boards really are in the best position to know what our needs are," Estabrooks told media.

"If – actually, when there are cases of COVID in our schools; we know that will be a reality – we’re going to have to spend the extra money to hire extra custodians to get in there and do a deep clean so that we can with confidence say to parents and students, listen, the school’s now safe to reenter.” 

Thousands of Alberta students are heading back to school this week. Staff and students will be asked to follow increased safety measures amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including mandatory masks for students in Grades 4 to 12.

The federal money must be used for COVID-related costs, including staffing, adapting learning spaces, PPE and cleaning, supports for special needs students, online learning and teacher training.

LaGrange said she consulted school boards, administrators and disability advocates in recent days on how to best use the funding.

"I believe that this approach is the fairest and most equitable way to disperse the funding," she said. 

The federal funding is part of a $2-billion Safe Return to Class Fund.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the financial commitment late in August. At the time, the province said it needed more time to decide how to spend the money.

On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said it won't be used to reduce class sizes.

“We appreciate the additional federal funding, but there is no world in which you could reduce class sizes in half and reopen the schools for the current school year,” Kenney said.

The NDP Opposition applauded the government's decision to increase per-student funding. But education critic Sarah Hoffman said the education minister should do more to prioritize smaller class sizes.

"This announcement should have been done the same day the federal money was announced," Hoffman said. "We absolutely could have had kids come back to much smaller class sizes today."

LaGrange said Wednesday that this approach will allow local school boards the flexibility to decide how to best use their funding.

"It's important that schools have this flexibility with their school boards in order to address their specific needs," Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling said, encouraging boards to consult local teachers and principals. "Now we need school boards to act on those requests from schools." 

The ATA would like to see reduced class sizes, more educational assistants and custodial staff, plus supports for substitute teachers. A recent poll by the association found that 64 per cent of Albertans feel that reducing class sizes should be a priority. 

Estabrooks did not commit that any of the funding would be used to reduce class sizes, except to say that the option may be considered. 

"I’ll be honest, $37 million spread across a division of our size isn’t going to be enough to bring class sizes down to a level where we could still physically distant students," she commented. 

"I know it may sound like a lot, but in reality, that’s less than four per cent of Edmonton Public’s operating budget. And so while we appreciate this money, I will remind people that education is in fact a provincial responsibility... The longer this pandemic continues, the more money that will be needed to properly put in place Scenario 1.”