School boards adjusted to changes at ‘Mach speed’

WELLINGTON COUNTY – There has now been time for school boards to understand how distance learning is going for their students, their parents, and for teachers themselves, and what the boards are hearing is mixed.

“We’ve had lots of feedback,” Heather Loney, spokesperson for the Upper Grand District School Board, said in an interview late last month. “Some people are happy – they’re excited by the lessons and finding new ways to learn at home. Some say it hasn’t changed enough. And others are saying it’s too much. It really varies across the board.”

Distance learning was thrust upon school boards and educators toward the end of March, when the province decided that classes would resume but schools would remain closed at least until May 31 due to the pandemic.

That didn’t give much time to develop an online curriculum that would follow Ministry of Education guidelines, and to figure out how to reach students who don’t have devices or internet, or both.

“We continue to evolve,” Loney said, adding more support staff has recently been added to the complement to make lessons easier for the teacher to deliver and for the student to understand.

“It’s been a team effort involving all employees, no matter what their role,” agreed Tamara Nugent, director of the Wellington Catholic District School Board. “It feels at times, that we’re moving at Mach speed with no time to adjust. But there is a collective desire and commitment to make it work, and that takes everybody.”

Both boards had teachers calling their classroom students the week of March 30 to April 3 to learn how they were managing during the pandemic, and to find out their technology needs.

The next week, April 6 to 10, teachers started delivering devices to students who didn’t have their own.

Loney said Upper Grand has 3,204 Chromebooks that it collected from its schools, cleaned and disinfected, and delivered to students. Many of these went to children with special needs, she said.

Teachers have also determined which students need printed materials, and Upper Grand is working with the transportation consortium to have them delivered to students weekly by school bus. About 100 high school and 100 elementary students are part of the school bus delivery program.

Both school boards also have numerous links on their websites to help parents and students with learning, mental health and technology support as well as practical ways to set up routines in the household.

Loney said Upper Grand is developing a survey for students and families to help the board assess how it’s doing in delivering education under trying circumstances.

Nugent said service to the community is a big part of Catholic education, “and so many of these sidewalk chalk and window art projects serve that purpose.” She said this year’s theme for Catholic Education Week – decided months ago – was Igniting Hope, “and that has turned out to be a compelling and meaningful theme.”

Nugent said her board is currently calculating the cost of COVID-19 measures but doesn’t have a number yet. There are some savings with school buses cancelled and buildings closed, but technology costs have soared, she said, and there have been no staff lay-offs.

“And when we look at eventual re-opening, there will be costs there too,” she said.

In a big picture sort of way, Nugent said the pandemic “has brought a laser focus on what really matters, and that’s faith, family, and friends.”