By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter
Durham District School Board (DDSB) trustees have approved a plan on spending $8.1 million of their reserve funds in response to the pandemic.
Acting Director of Education Norah Marsh presented the Reserve Fund Mitigation Plan to trustees at a special board meeting recently. The plan is in response to Premier Doug Ford’s demand that school boards across Ontario spend one per cent of their reserve funds to help mitigate costs from the pandemic. A total of $8.1 million represents that one per cent for DDSB.
The plan outlines how the board intends to spend the funds and Marsh notes four key areas that were identified.
“The first is to support those physical classes where there’s still pressure. We’re identifying right now and we believe that 40 to 45 teachers could alleviate that, however, also note it may not go that high depending on the confirmed enrolment,” says Marsh.
“One of the things to flag is we’ve been working with changing enrolment numbers,” says Marsh, noting it has complicated the process.
According to Acting Associate Director Jim Markovsi, over the past few weeks there has been an increase in the amount of students that have chosen virtual learning.
“We realize families are still working through how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their personal preferences for student instruction,” he says, noting there are currently just over 13,000 elementary and about 3,349 secondary students enrolled in virtual learning.
Markovski also noted a significant increase to the overall student registration numbers, which sits at approximately 74,000 students – about 2,000 more students than anticipated.
Marsh says adding new Early Childhood Educators is also part of the mitigation plan.
“We also require the addition of 35 Early Childhood Educators to the Kindergarten classrooms,” says Marsh, noting the board has an obligation when splitting classes to appoint an ECE in order to provide full programming.
The third part of the mitigation plan is the creation of a Pandemic Academic Response Team, and the fourth is the appointment of elementary pandemic related support staff.
Marsh says the idea behind the Pandemic Academic Response Team is to be able to provide support to students who are attending a physical school, who encounter individual circumstances where they can’t attend school for five or more days.
“One of the key safety protocols that we’re introducing and wanting to reinforce with families is that when children are showing symptoms, that they shouldn’t be attending school, or when they’re being tested and waiting for the results of those tests,” Marsh explains.
She says the Pandemic Academic Response Team would be deployed on an occasional basis, when needed, to liaise between the academic classroom teacher and the family at home to ensure the flow of work and support required for the child.
“We believe it does mitigate the risk of the classroom teacher being able to remain focused on the pupils within the classroom and also, most importantly, encourage families to follow precautionary safety measures in terms of making sure children aren’t attending until we have a confirmed understanding they are not ill with COVID-19,” she says.
In terms of the need for additional supervision support staff, Marsh says they will be needed given the staggering of lunches and recesses. She notes the addition of a health room established in every school for students showing symptoms requires appropriate supervision as well.
Marsh notes the budget costs for these additional supports includes about $3.8 million for up to 45 full-time teachers to address class pressures; almost $2 million for 35 ECE positions; $1.5 million for elementary school supervisors for four hours a day, $510,000 for the Pandemic Academic Support Team, and $300,000 for additional funding required to address the $1.3 million transportation cost increase to aid in additional runs to support physical distancing on buses.
Trustees ultimately voted to adopt the Reserve Fund Mitigation Plan, however, some voiced their frustration with the province for not doing more and leaving it in the hands of the individual boards.
“I want to be clear, I don’t think we’re absolving the government of anything,” says Whitby Trustee Niki Lundquist, who brought the motion forward, noting she initially struggled with it.
“I didn’t want there to be a sentiment that we were letting them off the hook, yet I recognize that we are reasoned, rational thinkers who are responsible for the children in our system and, to me, passing this motion is about that. It is about being responsive to the kids we have when this government is not being responsive to the needs of the safety of the kids.”
While Oshawa Trustee Michael Barrett voted in favour of the motion, he says the lack of support and integrity being shown from the government is a concern and the additional 1.4 per cent given to the board to manage the crisis is “absolutely ludicrous with facing the biggest global pandemic we’ve ever faced.”
“Part of me wants to say this is absolutely ridiculous and we should not be doing this,” he says. “Of course, the other side of me says I want to do everything I can to be responsive to the change, responsive to the crisis, and responsive in order to make sure we indeed are protecting our most valuable resource, our kids, and be able to make sure we are keeping all our employees, whether they’re inside the classroom, outside the classroom, virtually or not, being able to protect our children.”
Marsh notes the use of reserve funds is in addition to the previously received provincial funding, which includes funding for 45 additional custodial staff positions, in addition to the 11 newly added positions previously approved in the 2020/2021 budget year negotiated through bargaining tables.
Also, in August the board received funding from the province for special education and mental health support, which Marsh says includes EA support, social work and other social emotional supports.
“[This funding] acknowledges the need we know our students are returning to school with, either virtually or physically, and focusing on the wellbeing and the transition back,” says Marsh.
The province has also provided funding for training, enhanced cleaning protocols, and remote learning.
“[Funding for virtual learning] was a key one for us in terms of providing administrative support to get the virtual school DDSB@Home up and running,” she notes, adding there are currently eight principles and 10 vice-principles allocated for that.
Marsh says enrolment for the virtual learning platform continues to grow.
“We want to flag that while we have this allocation right now, we may find we need to allocate further administrative support to the elementary schools.”
Furthermore, the province also provided funding to upgrade the ventilation systems within the schools.
The board has also received funding for transportation and technology support.
“We understand the importance of technology in our classrooms and also the increased demand for it for all families who are going to be studying virtually,” says Marsh.