Following a special meeting of the Limestone District School Board (LDSB) on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, The Kingstonist interviewed Board Director Krishna Burra.
The interview took place on a packed news day, with two other major developments in Ontario education on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. In the early afternoon, Ontario’s four major teachers’ unions released a letter to the Provincial government, saying their back-to-school plans violate occupational health and safety laws, and calling for changes.
Then, Minister for Education Steven Lecce announced new money for schools to upgrade ventilation systems, and changes to board financing for additional staff.
Following the interview, readers can find LDSB-specific funding details from the Ministry of Education’s Investments to Support School Reopening in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, as of Aug. 12, 2020. For the LDSB, students return to class on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.
1. Can you explain the difference between designated and non-designated school boards?
Mr. Burra (B): At the secondary level, that’s where there is a significant distinction between a board that has been “designated” or “non designated.” If the school board is designated, typically that’s the more urban school boards like Toronto or Ottawa, then students are only returning to school at the secondary level part-time. They have an adaptive model so lets say you have a class of 24. Twelve students come for 2.5 days of the week, the other 12 come on the other 2.5 days of the week.
As a non-designated board in this particular area, obviously [the Ministry] decided that based on geography and I’m assuming based on health parameters, it means that [grade] 9-12 students are meant to return to school or regular programming in a conventional kind of way, but with enhanced safety and health protocols.
2. Do you think it’s feasible for elementary teachers with younger students to maintain social distancing and hand hygiene protocols in the classroom? How will teachers be able to enforce that in a class of 30 kids?
B: I think that teachers and the support staff are going to do the very best they can. Obviously a lot of this has to do with training and trying to get this information to families beforehand, so they can practice those types of things.
We do have three Professional Activity (PA) days to start the school year where the emphasis will be on health and safety, and getting ready for receiving students. All of those practices have to be things that are taught to students [at] the start of the school year.
People will do the very best that they can to make sure that those things are happening. And again, there’s a whole range of mitigation strategies [in the Provincial guidelines]. We have to take the best medical advice that we receive to do the best we can, to make sure we’re maintaining a healthy learning environment for all staff and students.
3. Parents need to make a choice between remote and in-class learning this week. The board had explained that staffing requirements limit their flexibility to move a student from one type of learning to the other. Can you elaborate on that staffing restriction and how it relates to mobility?
B: Ultimately we are funded for the students for this upcoming school year, whether they are remote learners, or whether they are face-to-face learners. But at the same time, the funding that we receive for those students pays for the same staff. So as a result, the number of remote learners that we receive — obviously we need that information in the near future — that will impact the number of staff that ultimately have to be pulled out of the same pool of people, as far as our educators are concerned.
Using an example, if there is a school of a couple hundred students: If 50 students opt for remote learning, then we are going to have to pull some staff out of that particular school at the micro level, to help support those remote learners.
4. So they’ll be teaching exclusively remote? You’ll have teachers who teach only remote and only in-class?
B: We potentially would be in a situation where that would be the case. And certainly one of the things that the Ministry has continued to push, and we’ve heard the Minister say before, too, is we also have some staff who, for medical reasons, in terms of their own vulnerability, may be seeking some accommodations.
So some of those staff we would be looking at potentially filling those remote positions… as opposed to looking at other individuals first.
The other piece of this, in terms of explaining it from a staff perspective, are limitations in the existing collective bargaining agreements that prevent us from restaffing at any point in time. So, from a week-to-week or day-to-day basis, if students want to move from one model to the other model, that’s more challenging because we do have to work with our labour partners. And there are some restrictions on when we can do that restaffing.
Note: LDSB has indicated that students will have the opportunity to change their selection for remote or in-class learning at designated points in the year. For elementary students, parents must notify their home school of a desire to transfer by Monday, Sep. 14, with the transfer taking place Monday, Sep. 21. For secondary, parents should notify by Wednesday, Oct. 28, for transfer on Wednesday Nov. 11.
At the system level, the number of students who opt for remote learning, if it’s a higher number, is going to have a more significant impact on staffing across the system. By the middle of September, into September, as we go through that first re-entry opportunity at the elementary level… we’re going to have to lock in that staffing based on the numbers that we have.
The best way of looking at this is that those remote learners are almost creating a school unto themselves, that will have to be staffed out of the total allocation of educators that we have for the whole system.
This is one of those [times], too, when we have to work with our labour partners, to see what additional flexibility there might be. We have to rely on the provincial government having some discussions with the central labour groups to determine what other entry points might be possible over the course of the year.
5. Besides the health and safety for teachers, what are the benefits of having a teacher delegated specifically to online or to in class?
B: I think in other jurisdictions where teachers have had to try to serve both an audience in front of them as well as a remote audience, it becomes quite challenging and creates some different privacy concerns, too. This is the way that I think most school boards are approaching this: Trying to make sure that they are dedicating staff to support students, treating those remote learners like they are a virtual class, in a similar way [to if] they would be in front of them, in a classroom.
6. What do you feel is the justification for having different regulations on indoor capacity and indoor spaces specifically for schools, as opposed to other types of businesses.
(Note – LDSB communications team suggested that this question would be more appropriately directed to the LDSB Board Chair, or the Ministry of Health.
B: We have to operationalize the directions we receive from the Ministry. Obviously based on what the Ministry says, they’re working with local public health units, as well as basing information on the Sick Kids Report. I think it’s fair to say, in the document, there are wide range of mitigation practices to try to reduce risk. I can’t really comment on the direction. That is what we’ve been asked.
7. Are you operating on the understanding that, based on this differing regulation, children or teens are less susceptible or less vulnerable to COVID-19?
B: I think it would be very fair to say that that would be an excellent question to ask an infectious disease specialist. If you look at the Sick Kids Report, there are some suggestions made in that document, but there also is some uncertainty and disagreement, potentially between people who ultimately would have the best and most informed answers for you.
8. Do you think the Board should have some kind of ideas or understanding on that?
B: I think we have to rely on the medical community to answer those questions, which is why we have to rely very heavily on the guidance of local Public Health here, to make sure that we are doing the best we can to provide for the health and safety of students.
(Note – LDSB notes that Kingston’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, has endorsed the Ministry guidelines. Dr. Moore advised on Friday, July 31, that schools can reopen safely under the provincial guidelines, though new cases may arise.)
Public Health has shared with the Kingstonist that while there are capacity limits for indoor spaces in Ontario, there are exemptions for those restrictions in schools. The regulations call for a distance of two metres or more, unless it is required for the purposes of learning or instruction that people be closer than two metres. The question to Public Health was: would they be enforcing restrictions that are imposed on other businesses, and their answer was no.
B: We are following the direction of both Public Health and from the Ministry to put in all of those mitigation strategies to try to reduce risk for everybody.
9. When do you expect Board meetings will return to in-person meetings?
B: [Wednesday’s] meeting was a hybrid meeting. We did have the trustees in the boardroom, they were physically spaced, they were masked. It wasn’t a meeting that was open to the public because, obviously, bringing in more people, beyond the capacity for spacing within the room, is not possible. So as a result we did the best we could streaming to a live audience that could participate in the meeting.
In terms of assuming when that’s going to happen, that’s ultimately going to be determined by Ministry regulation and approval from Public Health, to make sure that we’re doing this in a safe kind of way.
LDSB allocations of the Ministry of Education’s COVID-19 response funding
The following information is contained in the LDSB Meeting Agenda for Aug. 12, 2020.
Funding for additional supervision staff — The Province announced $30 million in funding for additional staffing related to supervision that will be provided through an application process after the Board has incurred deficit spending of accumulated surpluses in excess of 1 per cent of revenues. For LDSB, this amounts to deficit spending of approximately $2.5 million prior to an approval of an application for funding. (To paraphrase: the board must spend $2.5 million from its own reserves then it can apply for reimbursement from the province.)
Note: On Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, Minister for Education Steven Lecce announced changes which would allow boards to dip further into their own reserves. Further details are still pending.
Funding for additional Custodial Staff — $470,370
Health and Safety Training for occasional teachers and casual education workers — $94,726
Masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – A provincial investment of $60 million to the sector for PPE and that masks and face shields will be provided for teachers and other education workers. LDSB has placed orders with the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services for the required PPE.
Cleaning Supplies – A provincial investment of $29 million for cleaning supplies for schools and school buses. LDSB’s previously announced cleaning allocation is $38,582 and orders have been placed with the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services for the required cleaning supplies.
Transportation in the sector will be receiving a $40 million investment to address cleaning and disinfecting supplies and labour for enhanced cleaning protocols. Details of how this investment will be distributed has not been provided.
LDSB will be receiving an additional $113,141 to support special education with additional local needs related to staffing resources, assistive technology, and professional assessments.
Mental health needs will be supported through an additional investment of $125,608 in addition to a previously announced investment of $125,608 for a total mental health needs investment in LDSB of $251,216
The Government previously announced a $15 million system investment to support technology related expenses in providing students with greater access to technology. LDSB’s allocation for technology related expenses is $136,871.
Supply teachers at the LDSB
The Board wasn’t able to give too much information regarding the role supply teachers will play in the 2020-2021 school year, citing the need for more information.
“Until we hear back from families regarding how many students are not returning to in-person school, we won’t know what our staffing needs are for full time staff or occasional (supply) teachers,” said Karen Smith, a Communications Officer with the LDSB.
“Itinerant teachers (those who move between sites) will continue to do that, [we] so assume the same would be the case for occasionals (they will follow health and safety protocols as outlined by public health),” she concluded.