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School board officials never predicted a pandemic would be an opportune time to make their case for the status quo.
The expected delay of the province’s K-12 education review, announced in March, was welcomed by teachers, administrators and executives on the Manitoba School Board Association, an organization whose future depends on what’s inside the yet-to-be-public final report.
In school communities, there is widespread speculation about recommendations to revamp the format of public school divisions and amalgamate some, if not all, of the 37 boards to reduce costs.
Anticipation was expected to end with the report’s release in March, but the COVID-19 response put it on hold. Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen has promised "significant changes" in the recommendations won’t be implemented until summer 2021, at the earliest.
The association that represents boards is using the extra time to ramp up its arguments in favour of the current system.
"It is important for Manitobans to understand, in this context of the pandemic and in more normal times, why their local school board is important in preserving and protecting local resources, local schools and local voice," said president Alan Campbell.
The Winnipeg School Division, the largest in the province, serves nearly 33,000 students in 78 schools. The smallest board, School District of Whiteshell, is based in Pinawa and has slightly more than 200 students enrolled in two schools.
Campbell, a school trustee in the Interlake School Division, said distance education is being carried out across the province because of every board’s ability to tailor learning plans to local community needs.
Winnipeg divisions have been surveying families to determine the need for meal packages and laptops.
In rural and remote areas, boards have opened Wi-Fi networks up so anyone with poor connectivity at home can access the internet in school parking lots. Hotspots are possible because divisions have established fibre optic networks, sometimes a community’s only high-speed internet source, Campbell said.
In the Southwest Horizon School Division, administration has been transitioning into a new model with students at both community and colony schools in mind.
Superintendent Carolyn Cory said the move to e-learning has been simple in some ways, since the division has long been using videoconferencing to teach courses due to its large geographic size but small enrolment.
"Our advantage is being small," Cory said, adding the Souris-area district's size means trustees are well-known in their wards. "At this time, when there are some many unknown, it's a particular comfort to know there’s that local voice they can go to. People in our area know senior administration very well."
On the subject of board structures, the education minister has said experience gaps between well-meaning trustees and superintendents have proven to be a challenge. "I’m not sure the model always functions well, when you have that kind of power indifference," Goertzen told the Free Press earlier this year.
Meanwhile, in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division, parent Charlene Hogg echoed the importance of tight-knit divisions. The president of Bannantyne School’s parent council, Hogg said she appreciates weekly updates from her division during the pandemic restrictions.
The symbol of division buses in her children's schools' social-distancing parades haven’t been lost on her either.
"It’s showing us as a community they support us," she said.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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