March break now April break; Octoblocks not certain for the fall, says board

By Kirk Winter

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has postponed March Break, so that schools can help to limit community transmission, according to the education minister. The break will happen the week of April 12-16 instead.

“I recognize that this is one more change in a year that has been challenging for so many students and our education staff who continue to work so hard,” he said, but added he acted on the “best advice of public health officials.”

All the teacher unions spoke in unison through a press release to oppose the government’s plan to postpone March Break, saying students, teachers, education workers, and families who have been under tremendous pressure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic need a break next month, not in two months.

Octoblocks not a sure thing for the fall

The Trillium Lakeland District School Board (TLDSB) has presented its school calendar for approval to the province, noting the controversial octoblocks are not a sure thing for the fall.

To get the 197 instructional days as mandated by the Ministry of Education, school will go right to the end of June.

“We have divided the (coming school) year into equal halves and blocked all the professional learning days so that the calendar can accept octoblocks or quadmesters easily,” said Superintendent of Learning Katherine MacIver at the recent school board meeting.

Octoblocks, the system at schools since the pandemic began, sees students taking one class per day, all day, for 22 straight days. Quadmesters are the classic semester system of four classes for a half year and then another four courses for the second half of the school year. In both systems the goal remains for students to earn eight credits a year.

Facility renewal/capital plan 

Superintendant of Finance Tim Ellis shared the board’s building and renewal plan for 2021 and by his own admission suggested the document “was a little ambitious.”

In 2020 the board spent $10 million on buildings, while in 2021 they would like to allocate $19 million with over 40 schools needing at least some level of work.

“We would prefer to have only 20-25 projects a summer to focus on,” Ellis told the trustees. “Many of the projects on tap for 2021 are small ones involving painting and upgraded security doors and door fobs. In the future we want to focus on fewer schools in need of bigger projects.”

Haliburton trustee Gary Brohman wanted more information on the numerous washroom renovations planned for the summer of 2021.

“We need to increase accessibility to washrooms in our schools,’ Ellis said. “These new facilities will be doorless, clean and fresh looking. They will also be disability compliant. We are also looking at creating gender-free washrooms.”

Ellis highlighted attempts by the board to be environmentally responsible in upgrading lighting to LED fixtures and bulbs and told trustees the board may revisit geothermal heating in a school test project now that costs for that form of heating continue to tumble.

Enrollment projections 

TLDSB has predicted their enrollment to remain relatively stable for September 2021, estimating 16,093 students.

Ellis told trustees “they (senior staff) tend to be conservative on their estimates and would rather add staff in the fall than have to release staff if the projected students do not materialize.”

Treasurer’s report

Ellis said “the board’s financial picture would be much rosier without COVID.”

First quarter numbers were presented and COVID costs have impacted virtually every budget line.

“Staffing costs are up,” Ellis said. “Technology costs are up radically too, but we needed to get hardware into students’ hands as quickly as we could. Plexiglas, vapour barriers and signage were all additional start-up costs for the board in September. Of the $4 million we were able to access from our surplus we have spent $3.9 million of that already.”

Director’s report 

Director of Education Wes Hahn took centre stage for almost a half an hour bringing trustees up to speed on what was happening in the schools as things returned to some level of “normalcy.”

Hahn laid out some of the changes to health protocol demanded by the province as schools reopened. These include no congregation of students outside school buildings and high school students will now be responsible to self-declare every morning while attendance is being taken that they are COVID symptom free.

“Additional provincial funding has also been made available for improved air quality and improved air flow testing,” Hahn said, “along with monies for PPE/cleaning of buses. There is also additional money available for technology, summer learning and online learning.”

Hahn had no details from either the Simcoe-Muskoka or Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Units regarding the provincial promise of asymptomatic testing in the schools, saying “no specific details are available on that front yet.”

“We need to keep moving forward with learning,” Hahn said. “We want to make sure there are not gaps in learning. We want the system to be in a better situation post-COVID. We need to set that stage but not accelerate too quickly. We need to continue improvements in literacy, numeracy and leadership training.”

“Octoblocks, to work, require a real massive undertaking,” Hahn said, “and there are challenges facing us for next fall including destreaming in Grade 9 which will be no easy task.”

“Our educational assistants are using relationships to encourage learning,” Hahn pointed out. “We need to focus on anti-Indigenous racism, and we have some work to do moving forward recognizing the contributions of Canadians of African descent. We need to understand those inequalities.”

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