School trustees work to maintain safe practice as schools reopen

By Sue Tiffin    Bruce Reain, Trillium Lakelands District School Board board chairperson, said school trustees knew back in March, as soon as physical distancing was recommended and school closures were announced, that they were in for a different kind of year.   “This year has inevitably been more stressful than last year for everyone, trustees included,” said Reain. “We have been listening to constituents’ concerns and fielding more questions regarding issues around the pandemic. Our role became busier at the onset of the pandemic and hasn’t changed from the time we were hearing, along with all Ontarians, from the medical officers of health and health experts that we were in for some unprecedented times because of the COVID-19 virus.”   The school board trustees have experience as long-time public school educators, municipal councillors, parent council members and involved community members, and many have had children graduate through TLDSB schools or have grandchildren who are attending school.  School trustees are locally-elected representatives who act as community advocates for public education.
“There has never been a period in modern history when we, as parents, educators, or now in the role of trustee, have ever faced such an unparalleled time,” said Reain. “This is a first for everyone and has presented many challenges for us as a society, not just a school board.”   At school board meetings, trustees have questioned how seating arrangements are being made, what measures would be in place to keep high school attendants attentive as they focus on one course, drop-off and parking space considerations if families opt out of busing, how possible changes to ventilation and filtration systems are being planned for, and have insisted on making decisions that support families who might be struggling financially.   “The concerns and questions are similar over our catchment area and, from what I have heard from other school board chairs and the director, the big question is the same throughout the province,” said Reain. “Parents and staff are concerned about ‘whether we can maintain safe practice within our schools in the face of the pandemic.’”   At an Aug. 25 board meeting, TLDSB board trustees passed a motion for students in kindergarten through Grade 3 to wear masks in class and on the bus, extending provincial requirements announced earlier that month by the Ministry of Education that made it mandatory for students in Grade 4 to 12 to wear masks upon returning to schools in Ontario during the pandemic. During the discussion of that motion they noted they had received numerous calls from staff and parents expressing their concern that mask use in lower grades would only be encouraged rather than mandated. The decision was one that was contentious for some parents, appreciated by others.     “With every decision made there will be some who agree and some who disagree,” said Reain. “The decision for younger students to wear face coverings is no different. Throughout the board we heard more feedback from parents and staff before the decision was made requesting us to mandate masks for younger students than we had to the contrary.”   Reain notes that everyone is adapting to major changes within their lives due to the pandemic.  
“Our director and senior administration have been working tirelessly, along with our principals, to develop a plan for the safe transition back to school including making regular changes to follow constant and continual directives being received on a daily/weekly basis from the Ministry of Education/provincial government,” he said. “Trustees have been kept informed, however, the operational transactions within a school board is the responsibility of the director and his team; trustees oversee the policies of the board. Many times, school boards and directors are hearing what the government is planning at the same time the public hears – when Premier Ford and/or Minister Lecce holds a news conference and/or issues a media release with directives and plans affecting return to school protocols.”   Ahead of the first week back to school for elementary students, Reain was cautiously optimistic.
“Like everyone in the province, we are hoping for a safe return to school in September during this unprecedented and challenging time,” he said. “We have put in place safe protocols recommended by our local medical officers of health for students, teachers and staff to follow. Parents and staff have been issued ‘Return to School’ guidelines and staff have had three full days of professional development regarding return to school protocols developed by the Ministry of Education and medical health experts. We have to feel optimistic however, like everyone, when dealing with a new situation that we have never faced, there is always an element of uncertainty.”   The next meeting of the TLDSB board is planned for Sept. 8. Meetings are broadcast via audio online as they happen and can be accessed at www.tldsb.ca/board/board- meetings/.