School board prepares for very different September semester

By Jenn Watt

When the September semester arrives at Trillium Lakelands District School Board some parents will likely be unhappy director of education Larry Hope told the board of trustees at their meeting last week.

The board has been asked by the Ministry of Education to prepare for three potential scenarios when school starts up again: return to a normal routine; a modified school day; or continue with at-home learning.

A decision on which model is employed has to do with what the health units say and it’s possible that students and staff will need to switch between models depending on what happens with the spread of the coronavirus which triggered the closure of schools last semester and a switch to distance learning.

“We’re going to make a lot of people very unhappy because we’re not going to be able to deliver for a segment of the population. No matter what we do we know that a modified day or program of any sort is not ideal for most families particularly those with younger children” Hope said at the board meeting.

Katherine MacIver superintendent of learning presented the plans to the board on July 8 saying feedback from two “Thought Exchange” processes that engaged more than 3670 participants had informed the plans’ development.

From the Thought Exchanges the board learned that parents students and staff want enhanced cleaning and safety protocols; need support for mental health and wellbeing; prefer in-person learning; want attention paid to the workload placed on students; and want effective scheduling.

While there was less to explain about two of the three models – the normal routine and the at-home learning – the modified school day presented more challenges.

“I think if you’re following in social media and listening to the news this is the one that’s getting a lot of attention and a lot of concern because it does mean that students would not be attending school every day” McIver said.

The modified school day routine should it be chosen would include students attending classes in-person two regular weekdays and alternating Fridays. They would be in cohorts of no more than 15 students. Scheduling would aim to have students from the same household attend school on the same days. Teachers would have prep time at the end of the day.

One trustee asked about those students whose parents decided to keep them home if in-person classes went ahead. When and how would the teacher be instructing them?

“This is where we need some good data around parents and how many parents have intentions to send their children to school versus intentions to keep them at home …” McIver responded.

The survey of parents and students had found the online workload overwhelming. At last week’s meeting it was explained that a “block schedule” would be in place for secondary students so they could focus on one credit at a time “to limit contact between students cohorts and staff. Each credit block will be a minimum of 23 days where teaching staff will maintain an online classroom so that curriculum can be delivered equitably to all students” a highlights document from the board reads.

Haliburton County trustee Gary Brohman inquired about how safety protocols could be in place for hands-on classes such as shop and phys-ed.

He was told that limited class sizes cleaning routines use of personal protective equipment and some alteration of what activities are offered would make it possible to offer those classes.

Brohman also inquired about PPE and how it would be paid for.

“What we know is there is a government allocation for PPE” Hope said. “What we don’t know yet is who that PPE is for.”

Hope said he had already received some pushback on the use of PPE (though he did not specify from who) and noted the difficult position the board is in. On July 13 the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit mandated masks in all commercial establishments. TLDSB also has schools in the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit region which similarly issued a mandate for mask wearing.

“This really is an exercise in managing people’s expectations. This is a difficult difficult line we’re walking right now” Hope said.

Plans must be ready for the Ministry of Education by Aug. 4. The school board is developing staff and parent handbooks and is surveying families about their preference for remote or in-person school attendance.

In addition at the July 8 meeting trustees approved ratification of local collective agreements with the Canadian Union of Public Employees for custodial/maintenance office clerical and technical staff and educational assistants; as well as with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario permanent teachers.