By Sue Tiffin
The following are brief reports of items discussed at the board of trustees meeting of Trillium Lakelands District School Board held virtually on April 27.
School trustee John Byrne said he has had calls about the 2021/2022 school year and what it might look like after a year of both brick and mortar schools and at-home learning operating.
“I’ve had calls, both sides of the spectrum,” he said. “Some people want to get back to the bricks and mortar. A lot of them love, and I mean love – and I’m talking parents now – the online, versus bricks and mortar education. People I talked to, I always state that as a trustee, our first priority is to get the students back into bricks and mortar, because that’s where we feel they’ll do the best in their education, is in the bricks and mortar schools. However, that being said, we don’t know what [the upcoming school year] will look like.”
While the school board is still waiting to hear further direction from the Ministry of Education regarding the 2021/2022 school year, and also about grants for student-needs funding [GSN] that helps school boards direct the budget process, Byrne said some school boards have asked parents to commit to in-school or at-home learning already.
TLDSB director Wes Hahn said he has met with department heads on a fairly regular basis to hear what is working and what should be done to continue moving forward, as well as gathered information from families through a “Thought Exchange” survey, with the majority of parents saying they preferred a bricks and mortar option. Hahn said if there was a learn at home option, it would be on a smaller scale, with not as many students enrolled as in this past year.
“We’re kind of in a position where we’re obviously planning and looking at all sorts of situations,” he said. “We’re going to be ready to go, but there is a bit of a comfort in knowing, first of all, what the ministry’s position on it is – we may or may not hear that anytime soon – and also whether there’s going to be any accommodations for it in the GSNs that come through from the ministry.”
Hahn said while they were waiting for some information, they’d like to be organized as early as possible and were prepared to put something together to move forward and “create the best learning environments we can.”
“We’re in a great position to make good decisions,” he said. “We know that there’s a component of families that really like it … We do know that a majority of our families are going to be in our bricks and mortar [schools]. The numbers are going to drop in our Learn At Home [program], which will affect a model that we design or are asked to design by the ministry. All those things together, we don’t have to move right away. We do like to make sure that schools and staffing are in place so we don’t do what happened to schools last year. It was last minute – not that we wanted to put them in that position, but doing it last minute and having them do two or three timetables and rejigging everything in their building is too stressful.”
Hahn said the school board was “listening very carefully to feedback on how we’re going to move forward,” and that whether cohorting was still in place, or a learn-at-home setting, the goal was to “create as minimal disruption as possible.”
“I think that’s what families deserve,” he said. “I think that’s what staff deserve, and we will do our best to take the direction of what we need to have in place to keep people safe, but also try not to put too many changes in place. That’s a really hard piece to ensure, but we’re going to keep at that to make sure that we take what we’ve learned this year and allow people to continue to put that in place while we maintain the health and safety, until we get the vaccines across this province and across our areas embedded in what we’re doing.”
“It’s difficult because we’re all looking through a clouded crystal ball,” said Byrne. “We don’t know what’s in there. We’ll do the best for our students. I just know that some parents are very anxious one way or another, and we’ll just have to wait and see what comes out.”
Remote learning in place post-spring break
Following the spring break, which was held in April rather than March this year as per the provincial government’s direction, most students have engaged in remote learning during the third wave of the pandemic, said Hahn. Similarly, during the province’s second wave of a surge in COVID-19 cases, after the Christmas break, students returned to brick and mortar schools after an extended time at home, in which they learned remotely.
“I think what we’ve heard loud and clear, and I know certainly being on those teleconferences with the minister or with the ministry, the back and forth change has been very challenging for everyone – families, students, staff – and I think that’s, loud and clear, if we can reduce that kind of amount of change and that back and forth movement, we’ve heard that very clearly,” he said.
Hahn said the school board takes their lead from the Ministry of Education and the public health unit or chief medical officer.
“Many times we are having to react very quickly and move into those settings,” he said. “It’s not a great situation. We don’t like to have to do that to families and staff, but that is the course, and that’s what we’ve been facing all year long.”
School still in session in-person for some students
Students that the school board refers to as “students with special education needs” are still able to go to school in-person – 74 elementary school students and 85 secondary school students are currently enrolled board-wide.
“We do have staff in our buildings working with our students with [special education] needs,” said Hahn, noting he wanted to “thank them and commend them for their professionalism and support for students, to be able to move and pivot in the way they’ve done, and in an environment of rising cases across the province, we all want to thank them and appreciate the work that they’re doing with our students … The passion and commitment that these staff members put in to this role, is exceptional and we do thank them for all of the work that they’ve done.”
Some staff working with students have been vaccinated through the Simcoe Muskoka District health unit and Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit, said Hahn.
“The pace at which they’re going is not the pace that we would like but it’s not [the health unit’s] fault, it’s the supply of the vaccines that is the issue, and it’s been communicated clearly to us,” he said. “We’ve been very vocal, trustees have been and we certainly have been voicing our support of having our educational staff vaccinated as soon as possible and that hasn’t gone unheard.”
To date, Feed All Four fundraising has raised $24,000 to support TLDSB families in need during the pandemic.
“At this point in time for many families it’s been a lifeline and we appreciate the work our principals and our staff have done to make sure families receive that support,” said Hahn.
The TLDSB community also raised over $41,485 last year to support the Terry Fox Foundation’s efforts to research and eliminate cancer.
“We obviously are a big partner and we will continue to be there for them,” said Hahn.
Next meeting to be held May 11
The next board meeting will take place virtually on May 11 at 6:30 p.m. More details are available at tldsb.ca.