At a special meeting of the Upper Grand District School Board on Tuesday night, trustees heard the plans of their staff to ensure the safe re-opening of schools in Guelph and area in just a few weeks time. According to the staff report, the new school year is going to come with big challenges, and a big price tag, but confidence is high that it’s a good plan that will give school kids a taste of normalcy.
The report on the plan to reopen schools was presented orally by several members of the Board’s senior staff. Director of Education Dr. Martha Rogers told the board that there’s been a “flurry of new information” over the last several weeks, and although staff have tried to stay ahead of the curve, they have been struggling to play catch up.
In terms of the numbers, the results of the pre-registration survey show that out of nearly 35,000 responses, 89 per cent chose in-class learning in September while 11 per cent chose the remote option. With such a large percentage of students continuing their education from home, the board will have to rapidly organize, determine the exact number of students staying home per grade level, and assign school administrators to supervise what are essentially virtual schools at both the primary and secondary level.
For kids going back to their physical school building, there will be staggered start times at the beginning of the school year. All classes from junior kindergarten to grade 8 will be split into two cohorts. One cohort of junior kindergarten students will go to school on Tuesday September 8 and Thursday September 10, and the second cohort will go to school Wednesday September 9 and Friday September 11. For other elementary school students from senior kindergarten to grade 8 the first cohort will to school on Tuesday, while the second cohort will go to school on Wednesday and then both cohorts will attend as usual on Thursday.
All cohorts, at all grade levels, will be at school all day starting on Monday September 14.
In high schools, grade 9 students will go back to school on Tuesday, then grade 10 students will join them on Wednesday, followed by the rest of their high school classmates in grade 11 and 12 on Thursday. In addition to the staggered starts, high schools students will be moving to a “quadmester” model, meaning that they will take two courses over a 10 week period before moving on to another two courses. This model will apply to all high school students whether they’re learning in-person or online.
For students learning at home, there will be more structure than when schools had to respond quickly when they shut down in the spring. Students learning at home will be expected to follow a school day similar to their classmates at their physical school building, and in terms of tech needs for those students, staff are expecting to have an easier time providing for students with only one-tenth of the student body staying at home.
In terms of conditions in class, schools will be doing everything possible to keep students physically distant, but there will still be a “significant number of large classes” in area high schools. Things might be a little better in elementary schools though were kindergarten classes will be split in half with teachers and early childhood educators (ECEs) being kept with the same kids at all times. For the other grades, about 100 occasional teachers are going to be hired to help reduce class sizes, but the real issue is space. The board is considering options like outdoor classes to give students more space.
Inside the school, the board is currently doing preventative maintenance on all ventilation systems, and ensuring HVAC systems are performing as designed. The board is also going to purchase 3oo standalone HEPA filters, which have four stages of filtration, and will install them in classrooms where there are no windows, while relying on good, old fashioned fresh air to increase natural ventilation in all classrooms that have windows.
That brings us to masks. Provincial guidelines are mandating that all students in grade 4 or higher be required to wear masks, while masks will be strongly encouraged for younger kids. Trustees though had a different idea about mask mandates.
Trustee Lynn Topping brought forward a four-part motion that would require that everyone in an Upper Grand District School Board school – students, teachers, and visitors – wear a mask unless they have a medical exception, and that school staff will explore alternatives for those that do need a mask exemption. The motion also focus on educating parents of students from JK to grade 3 about compliance, and will allow for progressive discipline to be initiated when students refuse to wear masks. The motion was passed by the board.
Bus use was also a heavily discussed issue by the board, with the survey showing that 31 per cent of parents with students eligible for busing choosing to not use that option in September. Many trustees though are still anticipating problems including Trustee Mike Foley who said that the “mayhem and overcrowding” on the school bus could be “where it all falls apart” in terms of keeping COVID contained.
There will be safety procedures for students riding the bus, as they will be asked to wash their hands before getting on the bus at home, and then washing their hands again when they get to school as part of their morning routine. In terms of seating, students will be assigned seats first with their siblings, and if that’s not possible they will sit with their classmates. Bus drivers will be asked to make sure that kids on the bus are following the safety procedures, but staff admitted that the first responsibility of drivers is to drive the bus, not monitor COVID precautions.
Trustee Jen Edwards brought forward a motion that copied the Topping motion about masks in schools but tailored it to the make the wearing of masks mandatory on the bus. It passed without any debate from the board.
Along with the lengthy discussion about the re-opening strategy, the board also passed the $416.3 million operating budget, plus the $49.1 million capital budget for the 2020-21 school year. In terms of the extra COVID costs, Dr. Rogers said that exact numbers were not available due to the recentness of the Ministry of Education’s funding announcement, but she was confident that the board will not need to spend beyond the allowed deficit spending which is two per cent of the total operating budget for the board. In the case of the UGDSB, that’ss $8 million.
“There’s no way around this, this is going to cost us money,” Rogers said.
You can read the full recap of the board meeting here.