ETSB moves into planning mode

By Matthew McCully

The Eastern Townships School Board (ETSB) learned of the Quebec government’s May 11 plan to reopen elementary schools and daycares at the same time as the rest of the province. There was no consultation or effort made on the education minister’s part to hear concerns or address any needs particular to the ETSB, which covers a vast territory.
The ETSB will spend the coming week developing a reintegration plan.
“We will try and conform to the minister’s timeline,” commented ETSB Chairman Michael Murray during Tuesday evening’s Council of Commissioners meeting, “but should we feel that it is necessary, we would be prepared to take independent action,” Murray said, ready to exercise the board’s constitutional right to govern its own schools. “Our version may differ significantly from that of the minister,” Murray said, about the plan to reopen.
“It’s going to happen. It’s time for it to happen,” Murray said, wanting to reassure parents that the board’s plan will consider their concerns as they move forward.
“We need to adopt an attitude to move ahead,” the chairman said, adding it is important to not become immobilized by doubts or fears. “We will adjust as we go.”
Here are some of the challenges the board will be facing.
Upwards of 80 per cent of the ETSB student population rides a bus to school.
Government directives insist that social distancing measures apply on the bus, meaning one student per bench, to a maximum of 12 students per bus. The ETSB will have to restructure its transportation network to accommodate the rules, which could involve additional busses or multiple trips.
As for the safety of the drivers, around half of which are in the 60-year-old age range, Minister of Education and Higher Learning Jean-François Roberge suggested a plexiglass barrier. Who would provide and install the barriers was not addressed in the minister’s press conference.
Teachers in a high-risk group, meaning those 60 and over, those with underlying health issues, are pregnant, or who live with a family member in a high-risk group should remain at home. In the coming days the board will have to make adjustments so that positions are filled with students return on May 11.
With a maximum of 15 students allowed per class, the board will have to develop a plan should there be overflow. The government directives did not include any mention of Handicapped Student Attendants or Special Education Technicians in the calculation of class sizes.
The board will also have to come up with a way to transmit whatever is shared in the classroom to the students who stay home without overworking the teachers.
Social distancing
The schools across the ETSB vary in size, so negotiating hallways and stairwells will be a challenge to coordinate.
Gymnasiums, cafeterias, libraries and schoolyards will either be off limits, or limited to small groups.
Instead of presenting a chairman’s report during Tuesday’s meeting, Murray gave the floor to the other commissioners to ask questions, and to get a sense of how the community feels.
“I deal with people every day. I make them follow the rules every day. I can hardly imagine that with little children,” commented commissioner and vice-chair Joy Humenuik. “It will be really important to be there for the staff. It’s challenging, it’s tiring. Your patience becomes less than what you normally have,” Humenuik said, adding there is always the fear of “do these people have it?”
The biggest challenge, according to Humenuik, will be “taking care of our people and taking care of those children.”
Commissioner Alice McCrory questioned students’ ability to keep a safe distance in school.
“Going up and down stairs, or going to the cafeteria, will they go one at a time? How can you let two go at once, the stairwell is not six feet wide?” she asked.
McCrory also asked about compensation for teachers who don’t comply with the directive to return to school on May 11. Murray replied that so far there has been no mention of whether they will continue to be paid or not.
Parent Commissioner Marc Mercure addressed the food security issue. According to government directives, no meals can be served to students.
“What about kids who depend on the breakfast program?” he asked, or students supported by the Christian Vachon Foundation, many of whom receive up to three lunches per week.
According to Interim Director General Michel Soucy, that would not be possible. The board is waiting for clarification from the minister, Soucy said.
“It may be time we stop waiting for ministry to make decisions on our behalf and deal with it ourselves,” Murray said.
Commissioner Frank MacGregor said he was concerned with the opening plan. “I would recommend we not open. Do we have that power if we decide to exercise it?” he asked.
Murray replied yes.
“I have heard from teachers, principals and parents. Almost to a person, this has not been well-received. They have many concerns,” commented Mary Kirby.
She called the reopening plan whether the board was ready or not and in the absence of clear directives a red flag.
Individual schools and principals will end up with ad hoc regiments and no continuity, Kirby said, pointing to different messages going out from different places about cafeterias, gymnasiums, playgrounds. “Kids can’t play with toys in pre-K? They all have to be disinfected?” she added.
“I’ve had a lot of emails and phone calls,” said Commissioner Tina Pezzi-Bilodeau. “Personally, I have yet to have somebody say they will send their kid back to school. I Feel they will be pretty much empty.”
Commissioner Claire Beaubien drew attention to the hard work ahead. “My heart goes out to teachers. It’s going to be a challenge what to teach, what not to teach,” she said. “Principals, those with two schools, will have to redo schedules, scatter lunches, bus drivers. Everything has to be prepared,” Beaubien said.
“I am a parent. I have been listening to what has been said,” commented Parent Commissioner Daniel Zigby. “My children are going to go back to school. They want to go back to school.”
Knowing the return would be difficult, Zigby said, “We knew information would be contradictory. There’s no easy solution for coming back. I’m out there on the frontline every day meeting people. It’s not that scary. Look at the numbers, don’t be dissuaded. If we don’t move forward, we’ll never go back,” the parent commissioner said.
Commissioner Dan Brodie’s kids are in high school and were disappointed by the news their school wouldn’t reopen. “Kids need social stimulation. I was for it; my wife was not. Within the family, there were different opinions,” he said. Brodie added that the return to school was in large part the government’s answer to daycare for workers. “How much hard learning will they do?” Brodie asked, “It’s more convenience while the government opens three critical areas of business,” he said, adding he couldn’t imagine doing all of this in the fall.
Parent Commissioner Hélène Turgeon said her daughter will go back to school. “She needs to see people, she needs that social aspect,” Turgeon said, adding that 14 to 17-year-olds need interaction as well and worried they could turn to drugs or alcohol if left alone.
Commissioner Jonathan Murray agreed with Brodie’s impression that sending kids back to school is just a way to be able to get their parents back to work. “We are both on the fence,” he said, about what his family will do.
Parent Commissioner Cindy Véronneau doesn’t have kids in elementary school but said her worry wouldn’t be about them going back. “I’m worried about what they will bring home,” she said.
If a single parent were to get sick, who could take care of the children, she asked. Not the grandparents.
“There’s an anxiety because of no social contact,” Véronneau said, but children will also be dealing with the anxiety of being a potential carrier and the associated guilt if they were to bring the virus home. “We’re all human beings. Is there going to be a right time, probably never, but we have to look at the psychological impact,” she said.
During the meeting a $400,000 expenditure for technology acquisition was approved to help meet the board’s new digital needs.
Chairman Murray pointed out that the education minister expects teaching to begin online at the secondary level. “That is a specialty area that is not part of a high school teachers’ skill set,” Murray said.
The minister’s solution, according to Murray, is four distance education teaching modules from the University of Quebec that will only be ready next week to bring all secondary teachers up to level.
No training in English was offered by the ministry.
Murray asked if there were resources in Ontario that the board could tap into.
“We only received this information yesterday,” explained Eva Lettner, Director of Instructional Technology and Pedagogical Services. “We haven’t been able to discuss this further.”
“Well you have two whole weeks to get it organized,” Murray replied sarcastically.
Education Minister Roberge had mentioned during Monday’s press conference that 15,000 IPads with SIM cards would be made available so that students without internet access could continue their studies remotely.
Murray asked if the 500 or so students in the ETSB without internet at home would be receiving them.
Emmanuelle Gaudet, Director of Complementary Services explained that the devices Roberge appeared to be dolling out are not free. “We received the cost, it has to be within our budget,” she said, adding funds for those devices are included in the $400,000 tech acquisition bundle, although the board is looking at alternatives. In recent years the ETSB shifted from IPads to Chromebooks, so a better option would be an internet package not tied to a specific device for students.
Reporting on Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) news, Murray said the court appeal regarding Bill 40 is still suspended. He added the QESBA was one of the organizations on committees formed to help organize the reopening of schools, but the government announced the plan before hearing the recommendations.
Appalachian Teachers’ Association President Megan Seline had several questions for the board.
She first asked if the board had sent a memo reassuring teachers. DG Soucy replied that a letter would be sent out following Tuesday’s meeting.
Seline then asked, knowing the daily death toll and infection statistics related to COVID-19, if the education ministry weren’t involved, what would the board do?
“That’s a complex question,” Murray said, breaking his answer into two parts; the action to be taken, and the process to carry it out.
“It’s obvious that this has to happen at some point,” Murray said. Broadly, the board supports the government’s approach, but Murray said on a regional basis it will require close monitoring. “As a board we have the authority to close a school if there were an outbreak. We might close, or decide not to open one if circumstances warrant,” Murray said.
Seline pointed out that based on the numbers, the Eastern Townships could be considered a hot spot. Murray replied that the board is in constant contact with public health services and keeping a close eye on the areas where there is contagion in communities as opposed to CHSLDs.
“But we’ve got to get the schools open, so rather than flailing around, as incoherent as the minister may be, we’re moving ahead with rational planning,” Murray said.
“Reactive proactivity?” Seline said.
“We will take time in the next week or two to consult personnel. He (the education minister) has not asked the opinion of teachers,” Murray said, or considered a plan for reintegrating special needs students. “There are lots of questions, I think we will have to resolve them ourselves. We’ll have to deal with it, relying on our personnel to guide implementation in a way that makes sense for everyone.”
Some of Seline’s other questions and Murray’s responses:
Will all employees be expected to wear protective equipment? No.
Students? No.
Will empty high schools be used for additional space if elementary schools need? Unlikely.
If someone has a health issue in their family? Stay away till September.
Will people with a medical exemption still be paid in full? That appears to be the case, but no confirmation yet. Getting a doctor’s not is advisable.
Is there a plan for cleaning before reopening and after each day? The board has a protocol prepared during the SARS epidemic that is still in place. We know the steps need to take, Murray said.

Published in the Thursday, April 30 edition of The Record.

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