Tuesday October 27, 2020 | LANGFORD, BC [Updated 1:50 pm October 28, 2020]
by Mary P Brooke, editor | Island Social Trends
COVID has delivered a big load to the Sooke School District (SD62) this fall, on top of several changes in the growing school district.
Between the presentations tonight by the rep for the Sooke Teachers Association and the District PAC, it was apparent that the overload of fall season 2020 is a bit much for most stakeholders.
On top of dealing with the load and strain of dealing with health and safety protocols in the schools and classrooms, there are big organizational shifts going on. A significant catchment review is underway (which is more of a reveal than allowing room for input) and the transportation model is changing.
The load on teachers:
Sooke Teachers Association (STA) President Jennifer Anderson said that teachers are in “a fragile state of mental health” due to the stress overload of dealing with all the COVID-19 health and safety protocols being applied in the school settings (as well as the load to deal with remote communications and learning).
“COVID brain is real,” she said, implying the exhaustion of teachers whose long journey teaching during COVID began back in March when at first they had to revise the curriculum to include remote, then prepare for a month in-class in June, and then for a pandemic restart in September.
“Teachers are not coping with changes well right now, re health and safety,” said Anderson. However, she thanked SD62 Associate Superintendent Stephanie Hedley-Smith for going ‘beyond her job description’ to help explain some of the catchment changes that were apparently announced to teachers at the last minute by SD62 administration on a Friday afternoon.
SPEAC (district PAC) president Cendra Beaton echoed similar sentiments. “We were stunned at how the catchment review was unveiled,” she said during her stakeholders report during the online meeting. She said that the approach of meeting school-by-school — with one Parent Advisory Council at a time — was helpful to each school. She said that French Immersion was most seriously impacted.
Trustee Margot Swinburnson said that “so many mixed messages are confusing for people”.
There will be a Catchment Review town hall online tomorrow night, Wednesday October 28, online at 6:30 pm. www.sd62.bc.ca .
Likely there isn’t much room for revision within the presented catchment changes, so the presentations to PACs and the townhall tomorrow night are more of an information rollout and courtesy than any hope for major changes to what’s already shown to be workable.
The catchment shift is due to two new schools (one elementary, one middle) coming onstream in September 2022 on Constellation Avenue in the Westhills area of Langford. The ‘families’ of schools will be adjusted to accommodate, including which classes attend which other middle and secondary schools in the SD62 school district. A second high school in Langford is also on the books to be built in the next few years (in the McCallum area near Costco).
School bus services:
The board since earlier this year (and fairly regularly over the years by Trustee Wendy Hobbs with details from Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull) has been talking about charging a bus-rider family administration fee. Their reasons have more to do with deterring ‘ghost riders’ (people who sign up but never use the service) than to improve anything about the buses, routes or scheduling as admitted by Cull this evening.
Trustee Wendy Hobbs asked if an increased fee (about $20 to $25 per month, compared to zero at the moment) would results in service upgrades. SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull said no, not really.
Hobbs noted that the administrative fee charge for users of the school buses would amount to about $1 million in revenues to the school district, and based on that she thinks that should improve services. Rather, it sounds like fees will go directly into general revenues (with Cull implying that the SD62 bussing system is already doing the best it can do).
Presently the school district is advertising to hire more bus drivers. The buses can carry only so many students due to pandemic physical distancing protocols, so more buses are needed on the road.
Island Social Trends has inquired with the SD62 school administration regarding how many new buses are being brought on stream, and how many new drivers (response still to come).
Not as many students due to COVID:
Student population growth that has for years been surging in the range of 400 to 500 students per year (primarily due to housing development in Langford) has sagged this year to 230. Associate Superintendent Paul Block outlined the reasons for loss of student totals, mostly a loss of students to various distance learning programs and schools both in BC and Alberta in response to a desire for being outside the classroom during the pandemic.
As well, in that Kindergarten is voluntary in BC, Block was not surprised that enrollment in Kindergarten is low this year due to COVID. Parents were concerned about exposure of their children in the classroom environment during the pandemic.
Schools in BC receive revenues from the Ministry of Education based on a per-pupil funding formula, so that means SD62 is now getting a bit less funding than expected to support their 2020-2021 budget.
However, Block announced a total enrollment (at September 30, 2020) of 11,296 FTE’s which is well in the range of what was expected based on his analysis in the winter/spring of 2020.
Superintendent Scott Stinson says the K-12 population project was approximately 11,120 and the overall projection (including distance learning and alternative programming) was approximately 11,500. No doubt the board was pleased with coming in at 11,296 (which includes distance learning and alternative), a skillset that Block has honed to a fine art over the years.
“The budget impact of the approximately 160 students fewer than projection is about $1.2 million. We have strategies to mitigate that risk to the Board by reallocating some funds from other areas,” said Superintendent Stinson in a reply to Island Social Trends after the meeting. “We are also hopeful that our international enrolment will increase with the announcement from IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) on October 20.”
SD62 Treasurer Harold Cull said that more revenues will come from returning International Students, as many as 90 more on top of the present 60 who stayed on during the pandemic (they simply had stayed on in Canada or had extended permits). Normally there are 230 international students in a normal (non-pandemic) year, said Cull.
Tuition paid by international students helps the school district with revenue challenges. Helping balance out that revenue shortfall of 2020-2021 is a reduction in expenditure on other things during the pandemic (such as school heating savings during March to May when schools were closed, and also bus diesel savings in that same non-inclass time period).
Trustee Allison Watson — a first-term trustee — noted her view that with the significant levels of expenditure by the BC government for their pandemic response plan, that funding for education could run into some tough days ahead in future academic years. That view probably doesn’t take into account, however, that NDP Premier John Horgan has always put education at the top of his policy list.
Safe routes to school:
Trustee Margot Swinburnson said she has met with the District of Sooke about perhaps getting some funding grants to develop more sidewalks or other means of safe routes to school, especially for Ecole Poirier students getting to and from school.
Of the three Milne’s Landing Zone trustees, only one — Bob Phillips — was in the room. Margot Swinburnson and Allison Watson participated remotely as seen on the large screen behind the board chair.
The rep for Principals and Vice Principals said that some learning is taking place outdoors — including in local forests — as a way to help ensure physical distancing during COVID-19 [see two Island Social Trends articles on SD62 around outdoor learning Sept 8 | Sept 24]. She said that “Halloween looks different this year… an exciting day in a safe way”. Remembrance Day assemblies will be replaced with classroom activities or performances that will be shared remotely with other classes. Indigenous language lessons by T’Sou-ke Nation elder Shirley Alphonse are “coming along slowly”.
CUPE 459 rep Amber Leonard said that support staff members would be meeting virtually on November 20 to cover a number of topics relevant to the pandemic. She added that — like the teachers — the load is heavy on staff during the pandemic, especially with non-stop attention to the health and safety protocols being diligently applied by custodial staff.
Superintendent Scott Stinson did not deliver a verbal report in the online board meeting. Stinson explained to Island Social Trends that his report is shifting to just being included in the agenda as an executive summary to trustees in writing. However, in that way he is not addressing the public during the meeting online with that information but making it very clear that his first line of responsibility is to his bosses (the trustees, the board).
This month’s report (as in the October 27, 2020 meeting agenda) briefly summarizes various notes from Superintendent Stinson. That includes the SD62 partnership with the Pacific Football Club, the district’s catchment review, the bus transportation review, and a visit to Port Renfrew to meet with Pacheedaht Nation representatives.
The report also briefly covers the Royal Bay Secondary capital project (construction of the addition is complete other than additional change facilities for the fields and upgraded plumbing for the art room) and the two schools in Westhills (Pexsisen Elementary and Centre Mountain Lellum) contract award.
PAC meeting support includes issuing licences for MS Teams to each PAC president as a way to make up for asking parents and community members to not come into schools during the pandemic; IT support will be provided to support parents to organize virtual meetings.
He said that hosting the town hall tomorrow night about the catchment area adjustments is to provide some information to the community and “mostly to respond to respond to questions and answers”.
For any questions that don’t get answered during the live town hall meeting: “We will record questions in MS Teams (in the chat function) and answer those questions on our website.” It’s an effective way to cleanse any obvious dispute, disagreement or angst in the public forum. But parents and caregivers will presumably get the information they’re looking for.
Superintendent Stinson — who is a big fan of the trendy Thoughtexchange method of assembling public opinion (driven by users rather than guided by the host, which of course therefore skews answers in large part to how well informed the audience is before the crowd-sourcing inquiry) — says he “will be watching the Thoughtexchange for feedback, to bring recommendations to the board”.
Meeting calendar, spring break:
Due to the short months of December 2020 and March 2021 in the current year’s academic calendar (given winter break and spring break), some tight timeline meeting dates were announced and agreed to by the board.
- For December 2020: Education Policy (Dec 1), Resource (Dec 8), and Board Meeting (Dec 15).
- For March 2021: Education Policy (March 2), Resource (March 3), Board Meeting (March 9).
As for spring break 2021, first-time Trustee Bob Beckett (Langford’s former fire chief) said it was more important that teachers have a full two weeks to rest up than (as Trustee Bob Phillips said just prior to that) to worry about the impact of “parents spending another two weeks at home with their kids”.
Board Chair’s remarks:
In his opening remarks at tonight’s meeting, SD62 Board Chair Ravi Parmar offered his congratulations to re-elected MLAs John Horgan (Langford-Juan de Fuca) and Mitzi Dean (Esquimalt-Metchosin) following the October 24, 2020 BC provincial general election results (pending final count due to large volume of mail-in ballots).
Parmar mentioned several recent days of recognition in the education community — for custodians, World Teacher’s Day, and also Principals and Vice Principals, but did not mention Canadian School Library Day which was yesterday.
No COVID masks at meeting:
No face masks were worn by trustees or staff during the SD62 board meeting tonight.
It was just yesterday that Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry said it is now her ‘expectation’ that everyone in an indoor public space should be wearing a mask for COVID protection.
Some staff in the room were spaced well, but not all participants in the meeting were seated over 2 metres apart. It’s possible they have determined that they are sharing a workspace bubble.
Question period inactive:
While there was a question period at the end of the 1-hour-40-minute online board meeting, there was no public participation (no questions from the public using the chat function).
Media are no longer given access to take part in the online meetings (a new policy that finally became implemented mid-summer) after many debates about the role of media reporting on meetings.
===== About the writer: Island Social Trends editor Mary P Brooke has been reporting on SD62 at the board level since 2014 (and the committee level once those came into play a few years ago).