“Scramble” is the best word to describe initial School Board reaction to COVID-19
By Dimitris Ilias
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It is a word used in military aviation. When fighter pilots, sitting in full gear, hear this code word, it means they must run to their jets and take off to intercept a threat.
This was the situation at the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board when the first lockdown hit, paralyzing the entire province. The board literally had to scramble, spring into action, and ensure a safe working and learning environment for all their stakeholders, mainly students and staff.
In an exclusive interview with North Shore News, Sir Wilfrid Laurier chairperson Paolo Galati recalls a very tumultuous 2020 in education.
March 2020, the beginning
By mid March, the board was in full alert. The unprecedented situation it had to face meant that the entire mechanism had to work efficiently and with great speed. “We ensured timely communication with our stakeholders. There was so much information on the media, newspapers, tv, social media that we wanted to make sure we communicated with parents(students) and staff as soon as we received news from the Public Health authorities and the Government. When the Government announced that schools would be closed until March 27, and students would be “on vacation”, the priority became to equip our employees to have the required equipment to work from home and communicate at a distance with their students.” said chairperson Galati.
Educational technology: Deus ex machina
When it was obvious that the students could ill-afford to just continue “vacationing” during the lockdown, the school board turned to technology to continue the education of its students. The challenges were many according to Mr. Galati. The teachers, for instance, were not all used to the same communication platforms (Google classroom, Zoom and Microsoft teams) The board had to initialize training and make it available to all teachers.
The Information Technology department was on high demand and proactive.
• Installation of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to offer over 15,000 connections
• Deployment of an additional 45 laptops for employees to work from home
• Installation of a new server farm to enable access to specific applications
• Addition of 100 licenses to the school board’s remote desktop environment
• Addition of 150 Zoom licenses for our management team to connect with their school/centre teams
• Addition of 800 new Zoom users (creation of a step by step guide)
• Configuration of Microsoft Teams environment
• Deployment of laptops for students without technology at home
• Hundreds of support calls to help employees working from home
May 2020: cyberboard
By mid-May, the use of online meetings at SWLSB had increased by 1047%! As an example, during a typical week data demonstrated that either on Zoom, Teams or Google Classroom platforms 4,180 meetings took place with 64,086 participants. The school board was in full cyber mode. The IT department held some Mozaik training for school/centre administrators, a software which allows for remote communications to be done 24/7. Chairperson Galati had high praise for the board personnel: “Honestly, I am so proud of the SWLSB, the directorate, the administrators and the teachers because everyone held their own ground and made sure the job was done.”
May-June 2020: some schools reopen.
As the first wave of the virus waned, the government allowed the reopening of schools away from the greater Montreal Area. New obstacles had to be overcome by the board. Mr. Galati said that back to school went well and strict hygiene measures were in place. The maximum per classroom was on average 15 students to respect the 2-meter physical distance and 25% of students enrolled in these 8 schools attending from May 11 to the end of the school year in June. 8 elementary schools outside of the CMM region opened on May 11 (Arundel, Grenville, Laurentia, Laurentian, Morin Heights, Rawdon, Ste-Adele and Ste-Agathe Academy). The return to school was on a voluntary basis for students.
7,400 Gloves, 4,400 disposable masks, 92 hand sanitizer bottles (plus refills), individual pocket size hand sanitizer (1 per employee), floor decals physical distancing Spray paint, duct tape, thermometers, reusable masks for each employee and other materials were purchased. “Delivery of the safety equipment was executed by the head office senior management team and me to each of the 7 schools prior to the reopening. It was important to us to see the various set-up in each school. Students were happy to be back at school and adapted well. Teachers were highly creative. Schools had made schedules to allow for outside play.” said chairperson Galati.
Fall 2020: Second wave looms!
As the summer neared its end, scientists were predicting the second wave of the virus. All school boards were asked to prepare a Back to Schools and Emergency Protocol which was submitted to the Ministry of Education on September 15, 2020, a deadline established by the Education Minister. Schools and centres also developed their own emergency plans to ensure distance education in the event of classroom or school closures. The school board offered training and information sessions were also made available to parents to assist them in supporting their child or children if they were required to stay home for a longer period. As the teachers went back to their classrooms no one can deny that there was fear and apprehension. “They knew that they had the total support of the administration while the protocols set by the Health Ministry were applied very strictly resulting in low numbers of cases” emphasized Mr. Galati.
On top of the raging pandemic, it was election time for the school board. Even though the ministry of education had turned all the French school boards into service centres, the anglo boards retained their autonomy. The ministry of education established election dates during the fall then cancelled them, then set new ones and cancelled them again. Mr. Galati is looking forward to the elections once Covid is under control. Running them in the middle of the pandemic would take away energy from running the school board during a crisis. It would also create an unnecessary danger of further spreading the virus while having as an effect a low voter participation since people are afraid to go vote for health safety reasons.
2021: Air purifiers
Looking to the future and the remainder of the academic year, Mr. Galati and the board remain proactive. A resolution passed by the council of commissioners mandated the director of the SWLSB’s material resources department to proceed with a call to tender for the purchase of around 220 air purifiers. Ever since scientists proved that the virus could be transmitted by aerosols and not only droplets air quality became a big factor. Those 220 purifiers will be installed in classrooms that do not have sufficient ventilation and will be filtering particles through HEPA filters as small as 0.3 microns.
The importance of air filtration and air quality during the pandemic has begun to finally receive proper attention. 0.3-micron filters although not capable of stopping the virus, which is smaller, would however stop the particles in which the virus resides which are bigger (droplets and aerosols).