Concern over full buses, classrooms raised at TLDSB meeting

By Jenn Watt

Trillium Lakelands District School Board will use money from its reserves for health and safety including reducing class size in certain situations, but there will be situations, such as on full buses, when physical distancing will be difficult to achieve, trustees heard at their board meeting on Aug. 18. 

Wes Hahn, director of education, gave an update on back to school plans for September, including funding decisions from the Ministry of Education to address coronavirus precautions. Among them, the announcement that boards could use two per cent of their reserve funds. 

Two per cent from reserves would come to $4.088 million for TLDSB, $950,000 of which has already been allocated from the approved budget. 

“We are obviously looking at using [those funds] for everything we can around health and safety with regards to whether it be physical distancing or reducing class size in certain situations,” Hahn said. 

“The budget that we have, it’s sufficient enough to do some things, but it certainly isn’t going to lower class size in all the places that we wanted to do, but we will come up with a very detailed plan around the use of that reserve funding and we will definitely make sure that we bring that forward,” he said.

The ministry also allocated $309 million to school boards with funding earmarked for personal protective equipment and enhanced cleaning. Hahn said additional funding had been made available for ventilation in schools. 

“On top of our regular maintenance of our ventilation systems … we are looking at things like filter changes, HEPA filters, air flushing, as immediate things that we can do to improve air quality,” he said. 

Signage is being installed at all public buildings to ensure everyone maintains physical distancing recommendations while inside. Enhanced cleaning is planned throughout the day. 

“The passion and the commitment to making this work within the building is really outstanding,” Hahn said of the custodial staff. “So I want to thank them for all the work that they did over the summer and what they’ve been doing to get us ready for our first day.”

As of Tuesday, about 15 per cent of students at TLDSB had opted for remote learning with 92 per cent of families responding to the board’s re-registration request. About 1,600 elementary students and 530 secondary students across the whole board will be taking part in remote learning.

Parents were asked to make their intentions known to the board so that planning for classrooms and bus routes could take place. 

“Our remote learning will … be a virtual school that we will staff. … We are receiving additional funding for that kind of staffing,” Hahn said. 

An outbreak protocol is still in the works for “symptom management and assessment and all the procedures that will deal with how we will go about dealing with symptoms that arise, if they do,” he said. 

In order to get students and staff used to the new way of doing things, the first week will have a staggered start, splitting the classes in half with one group coming two days and the other group coming the other two. 

“It’ll give teachers and staff a chance to review routines and really get the classroom and the routines set up prior to having everyone back. We think that’s a good way of doing it. And certainly we’ll be ready to move into our second week, hopefully with those routines in place and everyone feeling good about that,” Hahn said.

Vice-chair David Morrison questioned how physical distancing would be maintained with 85 per cent of students opting to return to the brick-and-mortar school buildings and getting on buses together. 

“Social distancing is pretty difficult with 25 kids in the classroom, that’s a reality,” Morrison said. 

Hahn said the money from the ministry would be used quickly. “We’re going to be looking at those hotspots or areas that we’re going to require additional attention, whether it be staffing or extra custodial staff,” he said.

Superintendent of business Tim Ellis said busing challenges were plentiful and planning would focus on keeping cohorts of students together and employing masks to help lower the risk when students could not be two metres apart. 

“The challenge around transportation is that we can’t really do a whole lot about physical distancing in terms of capacity, when you look at the whole sector, not just TLDSB in terms of transportation, driver shortages are common. The ability to purchase buses is a bit of an issue when you think a bus costs upwards of $110,000 to put on the road,” Ellis said. 

Students from different schools would be picked up on the same bus in some cases. 

“We’re limited in options of what we can do around it beyond masking,” he said. Windows could be open during warmer months to provide better ventilation and masks would be available if a child who required one did not have one. 

Additional drivers is also an issue with many of them being in the 70-plus age bracket that is at highest risk if they contract the coronavirus. 

Student trustee Kaylee Kelly asked several questions about what school would look like for students, including what would happen during lunch hour, a time when high school students are accustomed to either eating in the cafeteria together or leaving the building to get lunch in town. 

Superintendent of learning Katherine McIver said the board was in talks with the health unit about how best to handle lunch hour. 

“It’s anticipated that central gathering areas like cafeterias would not be used in the traditional methods that they have in the past, simply to reduce contact between students,” McIver said. 

She also said driver training that includes in-building instruction would not be permitted. 

Kaylee followed up with a conversation from the previous board meeting regarding school nutrition programs. Hahn had said at a past meeting that work was being done to maintain these programs, such as Food For Kids, but they would need to be modified because visitors are not allowed in school buildings. 

“We want to kind of keep that open to grab-and-go [food] situations,” Hahn replied. “And I know we have a couple of our senior team looking in with our community people to keep that going. And we intend to do that.”

Trays or bins of packaged food items or whole pieces of fruit will be available to students. 

At the end of the meeting, trustees had a discussion about the way the ministry had rolled out the back-to-school plans. Concerns were raised by some trustees that funding was not adequate for the challenges ahead, that the ministry hadn’t taken feedback from school boards, and that parents didn’t realize decisions about class sizes were made by the province, not by the board. The issue of class size, full buses and physical distancing was again raised.

The trustees passed a motion that the board’s chair send a letter to the provincial government, copied to other school board chairs, local MPPs and the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, thanking them for their support, but also listing their frustrations.