New reality creating new opportunities for boards of education

The Sask Rivers Education Centre/ Daily Herald File Photo

The way school division’s boards of education in the province meet has changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began almost a year ago. Many of the common functions of school board are now done virtually and this includes more meetings available and more communication because of virtual meetings.

“It’s a new reality for us with virtual meetings, it’s very different but I think people are getting used to it and I think it is working well for us. Certainly we haven’t cut back on meetings in fact we are meeting more often than we did in the past,” Saskatchewan Rivers board chair Barry Hollick said.

Hollick explained that there are currently meetings of the Board Chair Council which includes all board chairs across all Public and Catholic school divisions in the province each Thursday conducted by Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) President Shawn Davidson. When the pandemic began they would meet more than once a week.

“Every Thursday morning every board chair meets and we discuss the pandemic and the impacts it has on schools across the province, we get health updates, we get updates from the Minister and the Ministry and the deputy minister has been in on some of those,” Hollick said.

There are items such as updates on what is coming for school divisions in the province.

“At the latest one we were told graduations will once again be virtual this year, there will not be the in-person grads that schools used for many years prior to that,” Hollick said.

He explained that they receive health updates and share concerns at the local level for school boards in Saskatchewan.

This move to virtual meetings has created cost savings for the divisions as well.

“One of the positive things that has come out of this pandemic, if you can believe there is anything positive about it, is the savings that our board has made in the professional development area,” Hollick said.

The board trustees usually have a number of professional development (PD) opportunities which usually incur costs for things like hotels and travel and with remote meetings those costs have vanished with them taking place remotely in Prince Albert. This has also expanded opportunities for professional development for trustees able to do more. One examples is a governance course a number of Saskatchewan Rivers trustees will be doing in May.

“We could probably not have done that if we had to travel this year for PD but because of no travel we have saved a lot of money in the governance area. And this year even with this extra work it does not appear that we will use our entire PD budget,” he explained.

During the board of education’s regular meeting on Monday, they also found cost savings through farming out their Board/Director Evaluation workshops through the SSBA for the second consecutive year.

“It used to cost us several thousand dollars. This year with tight budgets, we are going with the Saskatchewan School Board’s Association team and they provide that free of charge to us because we are members. So looking at the budget again, we determined that we are going to like last year use the SSBA service and perhaps next year we may change it,” Hollick said.

He explained that the exercise each fall is valuable and a new evaluation with new trustees Alan Nunn and Cher Bloom will be another set of eyes on the system.

The board has also met virtually with local MLAs, new Minister of Education Dustin and local Members of Parliament.

“We have had meetings with our local MP and the MP for the northern area which takes in Big River, Canwood and Debden schools. We talked to them about social aspects, things that the federal government can impact, we know that education is a provincial responsibility but there is still things that the federal government does that can impact young people,” Hollick said.

He explained that they met with Duncan via Zoom call and had a productive meeting.

“We had a very good conference with him and a good meeting and we are pleased that he was certainly listening to our concerns and some of our issues,” Hollick said.

There is also an upcoming meeting with the Prince Albert Area Teacher’s Association and their executive including President Ted Zurakowski on March 24.

“We are hearing from them and hearing what their concerns are and their reaction to what is happening in the pandemic,”

Also coming soon is the annual joint meeting with the Prince Albert Catholic School Division board of education.

“We always share things about often Prince Albert’s vulnerable student population, our vulnerable student numbers are high compared to many other school divisions in the province and that is always something that PA Catholic and Sask Rivers usually work together to lobby the Minister to recognize that in provincial funding,”
Trustee Arne Lindberg and Hollick are members of the City Liaison committee with the City of Prince Albert and those meetings are also coming up in the future.

I doubt that will be virtual. I am hoping Mayor (Greg) Dionne will be able to have it probably in the council chambers to get social spacing because that is quite a big committee,” Hollick said.

The board will also be participating in the annual National Congress on Rural Education in Canada virtually on March 28 and 29. The event is usually held in Saskatoon and attracts people from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba with speakers from all three provinces. The Spring Assembly for the SSBA is also coming up in April and will be done virtually with all of the board present at the Education Centre on April 15 and 16.

“The one valuable thing I always found with those conferences is you get to share concerns and discuss various topics with other school boards which in a virtual meeting that’s quite limited, so that’s one limitation on the virtual meeting for the Spring Assembly. By having our board together at least we can discuss issues as a group rather than sitting isolated at home and doing it virtually from home,” Hollick said.