The Ontario government has extended the temporary remote learning period for elementary schools by an additional two weeks while they monitor the ever increasing second wave of COVID-19.
Many Kawartha Lakes parents were greeted today by their children arriving home from school for the Christmas holidays with all the school supplies and technology they will need to transition to distance learning effective Jan. 4.
Minister of Education Stephen Lecce informed directors of education via memo on Tuesday that while a final decision on school closures hasn’t been finalized, the province wants all students to have the tools on hand at home to make the transition to distance learning if necessary.
Trillium Lakelands District School Board staff and trustees spent much of their recent board meeting looking at statistical and anecdotal evidence about the first high school octoblock that ended Oct. 16.
For readers unfamiliar with an octoblock, the board decided as a public health measure to limit student contacts to one class and have students take one subject only for five hours a day for 22 straight days.
It’s been back to school for a while now — but not for everyone.
Staff and trustees of the Trillium Lakelands District School Board were caught off guard by the number of families choosing at-home learning with work booklets, rather than online at home. Only now, the week of Oct. 19, are students finally starting school for those who chose this learning option.
Sinead Fegan, communications officer for the Trillium Lakelands District School Board, and Tim Ellis, superintendent of business, have shared publicly for the first time this week that the board’s transportation suppliers are finding it difficult to recruit bus drivers for fall 2020, and that this driver shortage may create serious issues later in October.
“Yes, currently the transportation operators are having an issue with finding drivers,” Fegan wrote in an email to the Advocate.
Senior staff at Trillium Lakelands Board of Education made sure trustees were aware at their regular September meeting of the challenges they’re facing — including upgrading HVAC systems.
The challenge, according to superintendent of business Tim Ellis, is that although the board received additional funding for HVAC updates of more than $500,000, boards only have eight weeks to spend it or lose it.
Local trustees approved the spending of up to $4 million of their financial reserve to cover COVID related expenses for the 2020-2021 school year.
The board voted unanimously “to access surplus funds up to 2 per cent of the board operating budget to come from the surplus to be used at the discretion of senior management.”
At the same meeting the board announced a $220 million dollar budget with a $995,000 deficit for the 2020-2021 school year.
As desperate as they are to return to some kind of normalcy in their lives, parents who were contacted by the province made it clear that schools must be safe and sparkling clean before their children arrive back on Sept. 8, and that they need to remain that way.
Probably for the first time in a very long time, this pandemic has caused people’s attention to focus on the very important women and men who clean their children’s schools: the custodial staff.
Depending upon the school, there could be as few as one or as many as 20 custodians. And they’re every bit as concerned about conditions in schools as parents are.
“Most of us are over the age of 55 … and this is terrifying,” said one custodian with the Catholic board. (Staff quoted in this story requested anonymity.) “I can’t imagine with all the uncertainty around school cleanliness and safety that anyone would be interested in a custodial position right now.”
Another custodian from TLDSB said in a text, “It is all a numbers game right now … If more than half the kids come back, all bets are off without more staff and schools closing to the public when the buses roll. There simply won’t be enough staff to maintain the level of cleanliness that will be expected. I have seen a quarter of our kids home with the regular garden variety flu in December. COVID is much more serious for me, my fellow custodians and my students.”
Safety is the word on everyone’s lips. “Support staff wants students and staff to be able to work and learn together in a safe environment,” said Bill Campbell, president of the CUPE local that represents support staff including custodians at the Trillium Lakelands board.
Many school buildings are open from early in the morning until late at night, a veteran custodian who works in a public high school pointed out.
“When the students leave, the public comes in. There is no way we will be able to get the buildings clean if they are still open for public rentals.”
“Those public rentals also expose the staff to hundreds of other individuals who might be carrying the coronavirus. That is very frightening for front-line workers like school custodians,” the custodian added.
Wes Hahn, the newly minted director of education for Trillium Lakelands School Board, presented to trustees an update on the board’s re-opening plan for Sept. 8 but faced a multitude of questions from the trustees who were present.
This included questions about bus safety, cafeteria protocols, upgrading HVAC systems, social distancing plans, and much more.
“We are living in unprecedented times,” Hahn began, “and we will try to present to you the most current information that we have.”
Hahn said they met for two hours with the deputy minister of education last week and believe a good foundation is in place. Keep Reading
Following closely on the heels of the provincial announcement that Trillium Lakelands District School Board buildings will be able to re-open Sept. 8 with few restrictions, the local board is trying to assess how many children will actually be returning to school in the fall.
“Next week all TLDSB families will receive an email with a link to a form asking to re-register each child for in-person and at-home learning,” a press release on the board websites shares.
“Once this information is received a program will be developed with enhanced public health protocols in place.”