An ‘unprecedented’ time: How Hamilton’s school board is handling a massive reorganization

·5 min read

Last Tuesday, two of Emma Cole’s children said goodbye to their teachers.

Like many educators across the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, the teachers were being moved from the virtual Grade 4 and 8 classrooms they’d taught since September to new schools and grades as part of a major reshuffling.

The kids understood why, but it was tough to see their teachers go.

“They’d made really good connections with these teachers,” said Cole. “These were wonderful teachers. Great at communicating with the kids and really great at keeping the kids engaged with online learning. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Now, Cole’s kids will wait to be assigned new teachers, and perhaps new classrooms entirely.

This year, thousands of students have been caught in the middle of a dramatic reorganization process that has closed and merged classrooms midway through the first semester. Board administrators say the process happens every fall, though it typically affects only a handful of students and teachers.

This year is “unprecedented,” says HWDSB education director Manny Figueiredo.

The reorganization has moved 400 educators around the board as 800 kids move from in-person to online classes and 500 move from online to in-person. The problem, a symptom of the pandemic, can be traced back to miscalculated enrolment projections and a substantial decrease in provincial funding.

The process has sparked a swath of criticism from families concerned about the impact this will have on their children's education. Speaking in board meetings and a town hall this week, board administrators acknowledge the damage but say the process is unavoidable.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this, but we do,” Figueiredo told The Spectator on Thursday.

Financial constraints

Every fall, the HWDSB compares its actual student enrolment numbers to the projections it made in the spring. This is for funding reasons. Ontario’s Ministry of Education funds school boards based on the number of students attending — more students means more funding.

In a typical year, the board’s spring projections might miss the mark by a few hundred students at most, says Figueiredo. The province will fund accordingly. This year, however, the board’s projections were considerably larger than actual enrolment.

The board predicted 37,000 students enrolling in September. When they counted again in the fall, they discovered the board was missing 1,756 students — many of whom are being home-schooled or may have moved to another board.

The drop in students means the board will experience a significant drop in funding. At a finance committee last week, the board estimated it will lose approximately $15.2 million.

The board is facing other funding crunches, too. Since schools aren’t renting out space due to pandemic restrictions, the board expects to lose roughly $700,000 in revenue. The decline has left the board scrambling to reduce a projected $10-million budget deficit by the end of the school year.

At the finance committee, Stacey Zucker, associate director of support services, told trustees the board can find savings by reducing teaching staff, self-contained classes and more. The board should reduce teaching staff to the tune of $2.3 million, she said.

Delayed start dates

The repercussions of this year’s reorganization have been exacerbated by timing. One of the concerns families have raised with board administrators is that their children have developed relationships with teachers, who will hand off to someone new midway through the semester.

The HWDSB has acknowledged this problem. In a town-hall meeting Thursday, chair Alex Johnstone said the board will avoid late-semester reorganizations in future years.

“I think if we’re in the same position next September, a later reorganization would not be something we’d consider because of this year’s experience,” she said. “Administratively, though, it made a tremendous amount of sense to do it this way. We wanted parents to have a feel for both remote and in-person learning before having another decision to make as to whether or not they would transition out or into remote class.”

Both in-person and remote classes started late this year.

In September, the HWDSB announced it would stagger re-entry to schools so students could become acquainted with COVID-19 safety protocols.

Students were placed in two groups to enter schools on alternating days for the first week. Classes began Sept. 16. For many virtual classrooms, the delay was even longer.

The board initially prepared for 6,600 online students based on August registration, but early in September, a surge of 2,000 more students opted for online learning, forcing the board to find an additional 90 teachers to offer virtual schooling. The sudden increase resulted in enrolment delays; it was only midway through October that every online student was assigned a teacher.

Typically, the board schedules its reorganization for early September, before students develop strong relationships with teachers. Due to the delays, however, the board opted to push back its registration.

“We know this hasn’t been good for kids. But this is the ripple effect of honouring parent choice,” Figueiredo said.

Shift from in-person to online

Teachers are also being moved to accommodate a shift in students from in-person to online learning. The board allowed parents a late October deadline to move their children.

Approximately 800 students opted to move online while 500 students opted to move in-person, representing a net total of 300 students moving online.

The shift means teachers will now be reassigned to classrooms depending on where they’re needed. The shift will be completed by Nov. 3.

Figueiredo has said the past months have been the most difficult of his career.

“I know this is hard on the kids. But they’re resilient. And what I’m hearing loud and clear from parents that they want stability,” he said.

“This is now the next big operational hurdle to get through. We will get through this, but I know how busy August was and how hard this can be on everyone involved, because it’s yet another change.”

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator