UCDSB Chair McAllister writes Lecce with many questions and thoughts regarding education moving forward

The Editor:

Hon. Stephen Lecce, MPP, Minister of Education,
Ontario Ministry of Education, 438 University Avenue,
5th Floor Toronto, ON. M5A 1L2 

sent via email: stephen.lecce@pc.ola.org 

Dear Minister Lecce: 

I wish to acknowledge the difficult task you and we are facing in these days of COVID-19 and the progressive success being realized at the provincial and district levels. Allow me to begin by thanking you and the Government of Ontario for your exemplary leadership and deep care during this extraordinary time. 

As we learn of the promising news this week from health officials that shows the province has already peaked in cases among community spread of COVID-19 and numbers appear to be trending downwards towards a best case scenario, we start to consider the future and the prospect of re-establishing some conventions about schooling. In my role as Chair of the Upper Canada District School Board, I have given a great deal of thought to our present situation, the “new” normal and the face of future learning. In an effort to provide you with some local advice from our Board of Trustees, I share with you a general summary of the results of my survey of my ten Trustee colleagues. First, though, allow me to provide a personal overview. 

Presently, our various Boards of Education and all staff are doing an incredible task in very difficult times. Our contact with students is needed more than ever to engage them in their learning of choice; yet, there are issues surrounding the impediments to distance learning. The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA), as our official representative and leader in all areas of K-12 education, has defined and advocated clearly these issues such as gaps in resources, services and equipment. Going forward, what infrastructure can be put into place for the future? What will be or should be the agenda at the end of this crisis? Is there an exit plan? Will we be ready? What will it look like? What will the long-term direction be? What will be the priorities for our publicly-funded system of education? These are not easy questions but ones which must be addressed. Please know that you can rely upon OPSBA and local school boards to assist in addressing (and resolving) each of these questions. 

Minister, my survey of my Trustee colleagues from our Board table reveals the following comments which, in some cases, have been edited for the purposes of clarity: 

Program Delivery Considerations: Trustees share the following advice: 

  • “The delivery of on-line learning needs considerable refinement. Teachers and Boards need a great deal of direction and professional development in order to be effective, consistent and accountable. This is an opportunity to get organized in a different way. We have had the chance to adapt. It’s been a month now; organization and structure to our new way of learning should be a priority.” 
  • “Continue with virtual learning until May 31 and the month of June teachers complete final review and marks for students based on work completed prior to March break and any other assignments during virtual learning.” 
  • “There needs to be a directive between ministries that admission to post-secondary for students requiring semester 2 results not be impacted.” 
  • “For school districts to be permitted to design and implement a course on growing food to all homebound students, to be rewarded (accredited) when school resumes in the fall.” 

Reopening of Schools: Trustees share the following advice: 

  • “There are about 24 instructional days possible after the long weekend in May. If the provincial and federal medical staff agreed it is safe to reopen schools then this is enough time to be useful. But reopening after that is impractical.” 
  • “Not at all, or only if it is guaranteed safe. How can we focus on current ‘Best Practices’ for the indefinite socially distant learning?.” 
  • “Our students and staff are not expendable. As a parent I discussed this with my son, and he fears going back to school this term, though he really misses the social interaction. I have also heard from constituents who would not send their children back in June even if the health unit says it is ok, and I am of the same opinion. I would like the school year to continue in an on-line format with greater emphasis on experiential learning to fulfill the curriculum. Most universities have already elected that summer session is on-line format.” 
  • “Schools should not reopen this school year, but a planned opening in September as per usual; continue with virtual learning until May 31 and the month of June teachers complete final review and marks for students based on work completed prior to March break and any other assignments during virtual learning.”
    • “For our board, my suggestion would be a later opening, perhaps June, which would allow us to wrap up what has been a very different school year, but again if in doubt, don’t. “It has to be done right or not at all.” 
    • “(For) educational purposes we need to be fully open by the long weekend in May, in order to salvage any type of effective return. That being said, I also believe we can’t reopen without the Health Department raising group gatherings to a limit of “x” that would allow classes to continue. If the general limit cannot be changed then we remain closed. I also believe a long range commitment needs to be made. Announcing a 2 week extension to the long weekend and then extending again, in my opinion, will be more frustrating. I believe, if we can’t commit to opening with the relaxing of the general relaxing of societal group numbers, then we should not reopen until next year.” 

    Financial and Capital Project Considerations: Trustees share the following advice: 

    • “If and when physical distancing is relaxed the government should inject funds to capital projects in the schools that can be completed with an end date of August 31st and any planned operational projects planned for the summer start as soon as possible as long as physical distancing can be accomplished.” 
    • “Ensure that no clawback of GSNs occur this year. Ensure that when the Province is in recovery mode that the funding for education not be reduced so that we can maintain operations of the District and not be forced to reduce expenses. However, I think that school boards could be leaders and begin to find efficiencies through a continuous improvement lens and that if savings are achieved they be directed back to the community through an investment in building upgrades and or contracted services to enhance learning i.e. certification for students etc.” 

    It appears that the thinking of our Board of Trustees at this time can be summarized in a desire for, clarity and consistency and support at all levels.

    Minister Lecce, thank you for this opportunity to share some of our thoughts. I also wish to acknowledge the courtesy of the two teleconferences that we as Chairs have been privy to attend and hope for more. 

    Yours sincerely, 

    [Original signed and sent by Canada Post] 

    John McAllister,

    Chair of the Upper Canada District School Board



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