For the first time since March 11, the Upper Grand District School Board met Tuesday night, and they did it virtually through a publicly available Vimeo link. Some of it was regular business like approval of the calendar for the 2020-2021 school year, but there were at least two controversial motions on the agenda that prompted some debate in the 40-minute meeting.
One of the items brought up for discussion was from Wards 1 and 5 Trustee Mark Bailey who wanted to direct the board to send a letter to the Minister of Education calling the previously announced May 4 return date for Ontario schools as “both dangerous for communities and disorienting to system staff.”
“This was a grave concern of mine, and it has been for several weeks, but I believe that setting timelines, especially timelines that could be considered unrealistic, doesn’t let our system settle in a specific direction,” Bailey said. “Our teachers don’t know if they should be committed to distance education for the long haul, or to treat it like a band aid for a couple of weeks until they get back to the classroom.”
On Tuesday afternoon though, the Ontario Legislature passed a bill to extend the state of emergency until May 12, which also extended the closure of Ontario schools, and made the wording of the motion rather moot. Bailey volunteered to pull the motion because the rules of the special meeting format didn’t allow Board members to alter motions on the fly.
The other motion that generated some debate was for the board to consider suspending all future committee and board meetings, and any future meetings will only be called by the appropriate chair. A couple of members of the board felt very strongly though that suspending meetings for the rest of the year was a bit excessive.
“I believe that calendar for our Standing Committee and Board Meetings should remain regularly scheduled. If there are no agenda items then the meetings can be cancelled,” said Ward 2,3 and 4 Trustee Linda Busuttil in an email to Guelph Politico after the meeting. “Furthermore I know that the business of the board continues, we will have staffing, budget, and local collective agreements to discuss and ratify, and I believe that there must be continued information shared with trustees and the public.”
Busuttil said that changes to the Education Act allow for school boards to have meetings remotely, and not just to deal with matters related to COVID-19. Busuttil noted that she’s continuing with virtual meetings as a member of the Ontario Public School Board Association as they discuss items like the collective agreement with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), and provincial consultations about bullying in schools.
“As an individual trustee I believe that retaining regularly scheduled Committee and Board meetings of the Upper Grand DSB allows me to share provincial updates with the other trustees, provides a solid framework for staff to engage with decision makers, and continues to provide opportunities for the public to be informed and engaged,” Busuttil added.
The motion to cancel future meetings failed when it couldn’t find a second person to move the motion.
There were some technical hiccups with the live-stream, but the meeting proceeded rather smoothly, and with some reassuring words from the board’s chair about the exceptional times that we find ourselves in.
“This is an unusual and unprecedented time right now,” said Martha MacNeil. “We’ve had to completely reinvent the entire school system in just a few weeks.”
MacNeil also addressed the students, who she knows are missing key landmarks in their school lives like class trips, prom, and other activities. “I hope that students are able to cope with these disappointments and embrace hopefulness that they will be able to eventually celebrate with their friends again,” she said.