After the ‘most challenging’ year of his career, HWDSB education director looks ahead to 2021

·4 min read

Manny Figueiredo is wrapping up the year he once called the “most challenging” in his 25 years of work in education.

The education director of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board was there through the board’s most difficult decisions and obstacles in 2020 — from a full transition to remote learning last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the province to shutter schools, to a sudden budget shortfall in November that put the board’s financial stability in jeopardy.

And the challenges haven’t subsided. Come January, Figueiredo and school staff will navigate the board through another districtwide transition to remote learning, at least for the time being, as the provincial government attempts to curb the spread of the virus in Ontario.

“I can’t believe we’re here already,” Figueiredo told The Spectator, earlier in December. “It seems like August was just yesterday. From an operational standpoint, this has been a hectic semester.”

Early in August, the province unveiled its plan for schools to reopen in September amid the pandemic, with elementary students attending full-day schooling, remotely or in person, while secondary schools devised a rotational model that brought students into school every other day in groups of 15. The HWDSB introduced amendments of its own to the province’s plan, requiring face masks for students in all grades and allocating funding from its reserves to downsize elementary classrooms to allow for greater social distancing.

The board faced several challenges as the school year approached, first responding to a faulty online registration system that, for a brief but consequential period of time, kept parents from declaring their children’s enrolment, and later handling a major decrease in enrolment that resulted in a budget shortfall amounting to $15.2 million in provincial funding (the province later said it would allocate that funding to the board anyway).

Bureaucratic headaches aside, schools across the board also spent the first semester trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools and among students and staff — with varying success.

By the time school let out in December, the board had reported 212 cases among students and staff since September, with the majority appearing in the last month of classes. Nine outbreaks occurred in schools across the board, causing some classes to close and students and staff to self-isolate. As the pandemic’s second wave spread rapidly through Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area, the province announced in mid-December that schools would not reopen in January, opting instead to start the second semester entirely online.

Despite the uptick in cases in the final weeks, Figueiredo said he’s proud of school staff for keeping cases at an overall low.

“I think that, with about 40,000 kids showing up in person and about 5,000 staff, the number of cases we’ve had is still very low. I’m proud of how this team has responded,” Figueiredo said.

“I’m proud, too, of the 9,000 elementary students who went through full-time remote learning. That was another big challenge, but we got through it.”

Figueiredo said the board’s approach to class cohorting and contact tracing was vital to keeping the number of cases low.

“When a student tested positive, we knew exactly who they were in a class with, who they were near, who was in contact with who. Without staff and public health nurses assigned to schools to help keep track of close contacts, this would have been impossible.”

The province has said elementary schools will be allowed to reopen as of Jan. 11, while secondary schools will wait until Jan. 25. Figueiredo said he hopes the province will make good on that promise.

“That’s something I worry about as we head into January. I don’t want community spread to come into the schools, so I understand if we have to shut down schools short term for longer-term benefit. But I’d be very concerned if we shut down the schools for longer than the allotted time,” Figueiredo said.

“Yes, remote learning is a good option when we can’t attend school in person, but it doesn’t replace the face-to-face experience.”

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator