August 8, 2020

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Opinion

Pandemic underscores value of school boards

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SINCE in-school learning was suspended on March 23, school boards have been meeting frequently with education department officials and other organizations to develop a co-ordinated approach to dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on the K-12 school system.

While these meetings have been invaluable for exchanging information and clarifying health and policy guidance, the work of supporting students and their learning takes place at the community level, thanks to the efforts of senior administrators, principals, teachers and other front-line staff, with the support of locally elected school boards.

When classes were moved from school to home three months ago, the provincial government offered policy direction to school boards relating to continued learning, and some resources to teachers, parents and students. But it was school boards that interpreted and applied those policies so they worked in their divisions, and it was school boards that made sure students had the tools they needed to continue to learn from home.

Some students already had access to electronic devices and high-speed internet. Others had one or the other, and school boards filled gaps by providing devices, establishing Wi-Fi hotspots for enhanced access to their schools’ existing high-speed infrastructure, or working with industry to provide connectivity to students at home.

Where online solutions simply weren’t possible, teachers prepared thousands of learning packages and school divisions re-deployed staff — bus drivers, custodians, educational assistants — to ensure the materials got to students. With the province laying out what it wanted to achieve for students learning at home, it has been local school boards, with their roots in the community, implementing the "how."

The provincial government also realized early on that the suspension of in-school learning would pose additional challenges for those students who count on school-based breakfast, lunch and snack programs. It considered developing a centralized provincial program to fill that need, but in the interim, school boards stepped in.

They built on existing partnerships with local businesses and community organizations, and established new ones, to deliver nutritional hampers alongside learning materials to any family that needed the extra support. No new provincial nutritional program was required; school boards simply adjusted existing local models to new circumstances to ensure no child went hungry.

Since the suspension of in-class learning, there has been shared concern between the government and education partners with the toll the pandemic could take on the mental health of Manitoba’s students and families. The government quickly added mental-health resources to its COVID-19 page, including access to a virtual therapy program.

But in local Manitoba communities, school boards understood that the break from normal routines would be emotionally difficult for many students, and immediately ensured that existing, locally funded resources were maintained. Kids of all ages were missing their friends, teachers, and usual activities. Some were struggling to engage with their own learning. With the support of boards, teachers and other school staff are reaching out to students, to make sure each one knows that they are missed, that their school community is thinking of them, and that someone is there to help.

The tools and resources offered by the province are helpful, but school communities know there are vulnerable students who need a more personalized approach. They know who those students are, they know their needs, and they have the people who want and are able to provide the supports needed, because their local school board is there to allocate local resources accordingly.

The pandemic has not changed the role of school boards. They continue to support students’ academic, physical and emotional well-being. What it has done is amplify that role, making it more visible and underscoring its importance. In responding to COVID-19, school boards are using their knowledge of local circumstances to develop and implement plans that work for their students, staff and families.

That’s not something that can be done from Broadway, because those plans don’t look the same from community to community.

Education is after all, a community enterprise — local voices making local choices. The provincial government paints the broad outline of K-12 education in Manitoba, but school boards fill in the details that ensure schools belong to communities.

This is true not just today, but always; and it is something we all need to keep in mind as we await the release of the report of the education review commission, with recommendations that may shape our K-12 system for decades to come.

Alan Campbell is president of the Manitoba School Boards Association and a trustee in the Interlake School Division.

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