TLDSB faces serious issues in re-opening

Atmosphere in schools described as positive though

By Kirk Winter

School bus drivers are in short supply these days.

Trillium Lakelands District School Board senior staff, led by superintendents Tim Ellis and Traci Hubbert, told trustees at their Sept. 14 regular board meeting that the board is dealing with a number of worrying issues. These include a projected $3.9 million operating deficit for the 2020-2021 school year, a shortage of school bus drivers, issues with staff assaults by students, and growing pains caused by the board underestimating elementary school enrollment anywhere from 500-700 students.

Board deficit

Ellis shared with trustees the third quarter financial report, which ended May 31, pointing out that costs associated with COVID-19 are largely responsible for the board’s projected $3.9 million deficit.

“This is the first opportunity that I have had to break the numbers to you as we don’t meet in the summer,” Ellis said. “Our actual revenue was lower than our estimates.”

Ellis detailed that budgets for classroom technology, staff sick leave, maintenance, supply coverage and support for special education students learning at distance were in some cases well above what was budgeted for last year.

“The expected deficit of $3.9 million is just below the 2 per cent provision. This year we are allowed by the province to use 2 per cent of our accumulated surplus to a maximum of $4 million to cover additional COVID related costs,” Ellis said.

Shortage of bus drivers affecting students 

Every day more than 13,000 Trillium Lakelands District School Board students are transported to area schools by the 321 buses that are contracted by the board.

This year there are issues regarding the availability of drivers and buses to cover all the available routes before and after school.

Ellis told trustees that, “Bus drivers are at a premium right now. Our operators are working to get as many drivers as possible behind the wheel. This is presenting a real challenge right across the province this year.”

Trustee Judy Saunders wanted to know what the board is doing to make sure all students are being picked up and transported to school on board-contracted buses.

“New students may need to wait upwards of a week to be added to drivers’ manifests,” Ellis said. “All students will be given transportation, but it will take a little time.”

When queried about the cause of the shortages, Ellis said some drivers have chosen not to get vaccinated and some have chosen not to drive this year.

“It is up to the schools to communicate with the parents,” he added, “unless a whole bus doesn’t run, and then communication with parents is on the operator.”

Ellis is hoping that routes without drivers will be staffed over the next few weeks as the operators interview for potential drivers.

Student trustee Ryder Lytle asked about the status of late buses that transport students who stay after school for help or to participate in afterschool activities.

“If late buses don’t run,” Lytle said, “students can’t join sports.”

“We are…looking for solutions. This is a significant challenge with the existing buses that we have access to. How do we get students home from practices and transport them to their games? We are looking at many options,” he said.

Board chair Bruce Reain wanted to know exactly how many drivers the board is short, and where in the board the drivers are needed.

“We are slightly short everywhere,” Ellis said. “It is fluid…it changes every day. We have qualified mechanics and office staff being drafted into driving buses right now. It is particularly an issue in Kawartha Lakes”

The operators have more drivers looking to exit because of the pressure to get vaccinated.

Health and Safety report highlights assaults on staff

On the disturbing issue of staff assaults by students, Hubbert reported to trustees that the leading source of injury to staff remains student aggression, followed a distant second by slips, trips and falls.

Enrollment numbers creating problems

In a good news-bad news scenario, Ellis told trustees that enrollment is up across both panels, but that until more provincial funding is made available there may be issues with crowded classrooms and not enough spaces on board contracted buses.

Ellis reported that last year the board estimated they would have approximately 11,000 elementary students when doors opened for business on September 7. In reality, the board has found themselves with approximately 11,500 to 11,700 students enrolled at the elementary panel depending upon the day.

At secondary, numbers are also up approximately 100 students with the bulk of the increase found at I.E. Weldon in Lindsay and Huntsville High School.

Trustee Stephen Binstock wanted a breakdown on which areas of the board are growing, “because 500 kids are a lot of new kids.”

Ellis shared that elementary enrollment is up in southern Kawartha Lakes 5 per cent, Haliburton 7 per cent, Bobcaygeon/Fenelon Falls 8 per cent, Bracebridge/Gravenhurst  4 per cent and Huntsville 6 per cent.

Vaccine take-up by staff, students

Director of Education Wes Hahn said senior staff have been out to the schools the first week and that the atmospheres in the schools were “a real positive” and there “was a good feeling about being back in school.”

The number of students in Learn at Home continues to drop with only 300 remaining in the elementary virtual program and 260 in the secondary virtual program, both numbers down from last June.

“We want to support staff through difficult times,” Hahn said. “We had a great return to school plan that we communicated to our parents. Renovations at our schools continue and we have set a date of Dec. 31 for the completion of our HEPA filter upgrades.”

Hahn went on to thank the two local boards of health for their assistance in making vaccines so widely available. Hahn told trustees that in Simcoe-Muskoka the rate of vaccination for those 12 and up is 77 percent, and in Haliburton-Kawartha-Pine Ridge the rate is 79 percent.

“It is important that our families and students get vaccinated,” Hahn said. “The average age of transmission is down to 31 years of age. The variant is moving quickly through the unvaccinated population.”

Hahn told trustees that the board goal is to keep kids in school and able to participate in sports and clubs.  That will only be possible if vaccination rates continue to rise.

Hubbert reported that 74 per cent of school staff are vaccinated, with 26 per cent of staff have yet to provide attestations. She is hoping the numbers of vaccinated staff will rise as the month moves on.

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