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Stories from schools

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting down with principals, school staff and parents to have conversations as part of the division’s results review process.  This process allows Trustees a glimpse into how board priorities are functioning at the school level and serves as an accountability mechanism for the board.  In a normal year, I find these conversations valuable to help hear from school leaders and parents about the important work happening in schools and some of the challenges that are faced in this work.

This year, the conversations were different.  I left these conversations feeling hope, concern, and most of all, admiration for the staff and communities supporting Edmonton Public Schools.  And I wanted to take some time to share some of this with you because it’s not something I always have a chance to share in detail at our board meetings or school council meetings.

In these meetings, I heard about the principals and teachers coming in over the summer to get their schools and classrooms ready to welcome students back to school.  Principals talked about their worry for students when classes were closed in March, about the efforts to partner with organizations and school councils to make sure that families who relied on breakfast or lunch programs could be connected with groceries and hampers.  They talked about their worry for the students and families who they could not connect with.  

I heard about what it has been like to not have any cases of covid in a school, but that feeling of looking over your shoulder and waiting for the first case to appear, and I heard about what it has felt like to have an outbreak identified in your school.  A vice principal described having to isolate for 14 days, only to arrive at school for her first day back and be notified that she had to isolate for another 14 days due to another case coming into the school.  I heard about custodians who have been the mainstay of school safety, disinfecting classrooms at a moment’s notice. Principals discussed their efforts to reassure staff who are worried about rises cases and the possibility of getting sick or having their own children get sick and what this would mean for their students. They discussed plans for leadership when principals and vice-principals are both sent home.  I learned that some teachers were preparing “go-bags” to take back and forth every night in case they learned in the evening that they have to self-isolate and can’t return to the classroom – so they can be ready to teach students from home.

I learned about the impact of the budget on supports for students.  I heard about the mental health impacts of the pandemic on families and staff.  A principal described reaching out to offer emotional support to parents in distress, who didn’t know if they would lose their job because they had no childcare and their child needed to self-isolate.  I heard about the concern over missed instruction last year – the impact on literacy, regulation, and social support and the work to try to support all students where they are at when they walk through the doors to the school.  School council chairs described the feeling of being supported by their school, but also described the loss of being able to enter the building and help out like they usually do.  I heard about the challenge of supporting families online and helping new teachers navigate this landscape for the first time.  I heard about so much more, the work, the worry, the support, the hope, the plans.  I’m humbled to witness it.

There have been so many losses this year.  And so much change.  What I know for sure is that every person I talked to last week in results reviews is working harder than they’ve ever worked before.  They’re worried about the families they support.  They’re worried about covid, and the impact on their own families, and even though they didn’t say this, I worry that they are getting a little bit tired.  I worry about how sustainable this, and the fatigue that I know must set in sometimes – I certainly feel it as a parent.

But one thing stood out to me above everything else. What struck me the most in all of these conversations, was the faces of teachers and principals when they talked about seeing the students again in September.  They smiled wide every time about how good it was to be back with their students, even if it meant protocols and masks and distancing and cohorts.  Their faces lit up when they talked about their students.  It’s clear to me that the work that is happening in our schools is work of the heart.  

When I think about this work, and the creative ways our schools and our communities have found to support each other, I can feel the many hearts beating for the students in our schools.  All I can do is say thank you again and again for those who have been working so hard and have been given the largest task in education during our lifetime.  Thank you for your work and thank you for your heart.

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Motion to suspend provincial exams

At our September 22th board meeting, I served notice of motion to advocate for suspending diploma exams and Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) for the 2020-2021 school year.  This will come for a vote at the EPSB October 6th board meeting.

I believe this is an important piece of advocacy for our board, as the ongoing pandemic has caused significant disruptions to the current school year, which has resulted in many changes to learning environments, instruction, and additional stress on students, staff and families.

For instance, to begin this school year, EPSB has seen the following large-scale changes due to the pandemic:

  • almost 30% of our students are now learning online.
  • students attending school in-person are subject to health measures such as masks, hygiene and cleaning protocols, and classes grouped into cohorts.
  • EPSB and other divisions have moved to a quarter system for high school classes, resulting in condensed course content.
  • instruction has been changed to be more consistent in the event that schools move to a hybrid or online scenario due to changes in the pandemic.
  • the identification of cases and outbreaks in schools has resulted in large numbers of students and staff sent home to self-isolate.
  • there are increasing absences of students and staff due to self-isolation requirements when sick, resulting in missed instruction and changes in teachers.
  • there is an overall increase in stress and anxiety of day-to-day life that the pandemic has caused for families, including economic uncertainty, changes to routines, availability of childcare and the stress and uncertainty of a pandemic.

In the past, when large scale disruptions have occurred, the province has cancelled provincial exams.  Diploma exams and PATs were suspended at the end of the 2019-2020 school year when in-person classes were cancelled.  Diploma exams were also not required during the Calgary floods in 2013, and Fort McMurray fires in 2016.  I believe these were prudent measures to prioritize safety, well-being and learning during difficult times.

In normal years, diploma exams and PATs can offer useful information about achievement, but in a year of such significant change and disruption, the scores on these exams are less useful because it will be unclear how the factors above will impact student performance, and there will be no way to determine if any one or a combination of these factors have impacted the score.

In addition, diploma exams (and PATs) can cause stress for students and I worry about the stress levels for grade 12 students who have been sent home to self-isolate during a shortened quarter.  I do not believe these students should have the additional stress of worrying about how the disruption to their learning may impact their performance on diploma exams when we know that it is possible for post-secondary institutions to rely on teacher-awarded marks, as this has been done during previous systemic disruptions.

With almost 30% of EPSB students learning online and up to 12% of our schools identifying cases of COVID in the first month of operation, I believe that now more than ever, we need to prioritize student, staff and family health and well-being, and a love of learning.  I do not believe that provincial exams will provide much useful information for the system this year, and suspending these exams may allow for less stress across our provincial education system. This school year, we need to spend our time and resources prioritizing well-being and learning.

I look forward to debating this motion with my colleagues next week.

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September Board Update

The first month of the 2020-2021 school year is almost at a close and it truly has been a month like no other.  Many of us have been adjusting to the feeling of uncertainty (and stress) that has become a constant companion.  There are so many new things to adjust to this school year.  As cases and outbreaks of COVID are identified and students and staff are sent home to self-isolate, many schools and families have felt the abrupt impact of the pandemic on their lives.  In addition, almost 30% of Edmonton Public School students are learning online, and navigating the bumps of this new school environment with parents and teachers.

I am thankful for the EPSB staff who are navigating this uncertainty with families at schools and in our central departments.  I know that it’s been long and difficult work this month and that the work continues.  I’m also thankful for the families and students trying their best and continuing to focus on connection, well-being and a love of learning as we head into this year together.

The work of the Board of Trustees has also been continuing and I’d like to provide a few updates:

Federal Funding

At our last board meeting, Trustees discussed the use of the $37 Million additional federal funds for school re-entry during the pandemic.  Trustees heard that most of the funds will be going directly to increase school budgets for additional staffing.  The funds will also be used to help with supply (substitute) staffing costs,  portable sinks, mobile testing for staff, technology, additional transportation routes and PPE.  The funds will not be enough to reduce class sizes. Trustees continue to advocate for additional funding to meet the needs of EPSB during the pandemic as we expect that we will need additional funds for staffing.

Collection of Race-Based Data

Trustees debated a whole-board motion to begin a plan for the collection of race-based data in consultation with communities impacted by racism.  The collection of this data will inform policies and decisions to dismantle systemic racism. EPSB will be working with other school divisions who have collected this data, including the Toronto District School Division, which has collected race-based data using a voluntary student census and anonymous data to avoid profiling students.  I’m looking forward to seeing this plan take shape, including engagement with students, staff and community in Edmonton.

By-Election

The board decided against a by-election to fill the vacant Ward A seat.  I voted in favour of our board chair continuing to represent Ward A rather than a by-election, as the costs of a by-election were significant and the earliest date of January 2021 would mean a new Trustee would be in office for only a few months before the next municipal election.

Upcoming Motion on Provincial Exams

I tabled a motion to advocate to the provincial government to suspend diploma exams and Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) for the 2020-2021 school year given the disruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic.

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A New School Year

Tomorrow is the day after labour day.  It feels very different than normal this year.  We’ve already had the “first day,” we’ve tried on the new sets of rules and procedures.  It doesn’t feel the same, and it might be hitting home that “the new normal” really doesn’t feel normal at all.

I wanted to make the space to say again, that if things don’t feel normal yet, it’s because they aren’t normal yet.  We’re all still working on figuring out how to return to school in the middle of a global pandemic.  And it’s a little bit of a bumpy ride.

What I can say with absolute certainty is that the staff at EPSB are continuously amazing me with their dedication and care.  I’m astonished that EPSB has been able to roll out a distance learning option for almost 30% of our students. I know that there have been some delays but I’m amazed at the amount of hard work put in to making this system work for families.  I’m also witnessing the work of teachers and school staff who have been figuring out a brand new way of doing things in person, a way to help keep students safe and help them feel safe too.

All of it involves worry and excitement and a whole lot of other emotions, probably more than there are even words for. The one filling my heart right now is gratitude. I’m so grateful as a parent and a Trustee for the staff at EPSB.

The Board of Trustees has also been working hard to advocate for the needs of our students and staff. In early August we highlighted the needs of our large, growing school division and advocated for the dedicated funding needed to reduce class sizes and increase physical distancing.  We continue to communicate our needs and advocate for this funding.  I’m thrilled that we’ll be receiving an additional $37 Million in funding from the federal government some time this month.  While this will not be enough to provide smaller class sizes for all classes in our division, we will put it to good use.  We’ve also written to Dr. Hinshaw with concerns about physical distancing, and requested a meeting to gain clarity on response times and protocols when cases of COVID are identified.

The work of our board continues with our first meeting tomorrow, where we are discussing a motion for school renaming and a report on the School Resource Officer Program.

As always, I would love to hear from you about your experiences of school re-opening, your needs, and your thoughts on the issues coming before our board.  I’d be happy to join you at a school council or community league meeting, or chat on the phone.  Please reach out to me any time!

I’m wishing you a warm welcome back.  While it may not feel normal just yet, I’m hoping you can feel the hard work, dedication and care of our community of students, staff and families.

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Impact of Provincial Budget Changes, PUF, Transportation Fees

The Edmonton Public School Board of Trustees is continuing to meet by Zoom during the pandemic, and we had a very full meeting last week. At our most recent Board Meeting on April 28,2020, Trustees discussed requested reports on the response of  our school division to the shift to on-line learning and the impact of class cancellations. We also discussed details of changes to the way school boards are funded in Alberta, cuts to Program Unit Funding, and debated changes to our transportation fees for next year.

Weighted Moving Average

The Government of Alberta has changed the way school boards will be funded starting next year.  In previous years, school boards received a specific amount of funding per student enrolled in the school division.  Now, boards will be funded on a formula that creates a “weighted moving average” of enrolment for the past three years. Now, half of a board’s funding will be tied to current enrolment, while the other half is based upon enrolment from the previous two years.

This funding formula is helpful and provides stability to school boards with declining enrolment.  It means that these boards have some time to make decisions on how to best support students with decreasing funding.  However, this formula has severe consequences for growing boards like Edmonton Public.  Our board has grown by several thousand students over the past several years.  This new funding change means that we will no longer receive full-funding for any students over and above our enrolment from previous years.

Although our 2020-2021 enrolment is estimated to be approximately 106,828, the weighted moving average is 105,135.  This is significant underfunding for our growing school board. Our board has proposed a solution to the weighted moving average, and we would like to see growing boards receive funding for their actual current years’ enrolment, as decreases to our funding have a direct impact on staffing and supports to students.

Cuts to PUF

Our board also received a report outlining the provincial cuts to Program Unit Funding (PUF).  This funding supports students with disabilities who need specialized supports in Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten programs, to receive wraparound supports from specialists including Occupational Therapists and Speech-Language Pathologists. The Government of Alberta’s cuts to this funding has meant that the funding we received was reduced by 76%, from $39.5 Million to $9 Million.  The loss of this funding is significant and will mean that Edmonton Public Schools has to reduce the number of children enrolled in our Pre-Kindergarten programming from 1,040 to approximately 600.  Our administration has made the difficult decision to close 22 of our satellite program sites in schools, and reduce the number of Pre-Kindergarten hub sites from 10 to 6.  This means that programming that was available at 32 of our schools, will now only be accessible at 6 schools.

I am very concerned about the impact of this provincial decision. We know that early intervention has a significant impact on the learning trajectories of students. In our board meeting we heard that approximately 27% of students who receive early support will no longer require additional supports as they enter school. The loss of this funding will impact families and it will mean a net loss for school boards who will now be racing to provide intervention to children when they enter kindergarten, without the dedicated funding that PUF provided. If only looking at the financial consequences of this decision, it is one that will cost our system significantly, as the return on investment for early intervention is great.  However, we know that the loss of this program is more than just numbers in a spreadsheet, it will impact students and families directly. I am hoping that this decision will be reversed, and our board will be exploring further advocacy efforts.

Changes to Transportation Fees

Our board also passed a new fee schedule for transportation fees.  After losing $5.3 Million in transportation funding with this years’ budget, we sent a survey to families, which informed our board vote on a change to fees going forward.  The new fee structure will be based solely on the type of transportation offered, with a $38 monthly fee for students riding the yellow bus, and a $60 monthly fee for students riding ETS.  During disdussion of this change, we heard that this will be a net increase for most of our families, as anticipated due to a reduction to our transportation grant. The changes will also mean a simpler set of rules for families.

An important factor for me in making this decision was a concern for the 16% of our families living in poverty.  In our meeting, we were assured that any family who is unable to afford transportation fees may request a reduction or waiver by speaking to their principal, and we discussed ways to make this process more transparent to families.  In addition, families may apply for the Ride Transit Program, which offers a reduced rate of $38 on ETS bus passes based on family income.