On Friday, May 29, the Winnipeg Free Press published a front-page article “‘Pandemic-proof pedagogical system’: Lessons as usual for Hutterite colonies.”
During this time of suspended in-person classes due to the COVID pandemic, the article explained how across the province “an easy upload to distance learning has been all but impossible for teachers and students.”
In contrast, high school students (in both Hutterian and public schools) in Prairie Spirit School Division have continued their blended learning courses with little change. Why the difference?
In the late 1990s, the school boards of Pembina Valley, Tiger Hills, and Mountain School Divisions were part of a tripartite agreement with the federal and provincial governments to take initial steps towards a distance education system. With the formation of Prairie Spirit School Division in 1998, the board of the day continued to grow the vision set by the previous boards.
With a large land base (5,600 sq. km), declining enrolment (currently stable at approx. 2,000 students) and community desires to educate students in their home communities rather than busing them great distances, a comprehensive distance education system was felt to be the best option to enhance student learning.
Initially, this meant a two-way audio/visual system capable of transmitting to multiple schools, but the system has grown and developed over time.
In 2012, the board courageously embarked upon a $3-million infrastructure project to enhance transmission of information. Apart from the $60 per student annual tech grant the province gave to each school division, there was no help from the province.
At that point, the only other tech provider in the area was Manitoba Telephone Systems, that proved to be prohibitively expensive and therefore impractical to deal with. A 10-year loan was taken out, financed through local taxation by our local levy. The project was completed and the loan was paid off in advance. The infrastructure put in place through that project continues to be an integral part of our system today.
With ongoing technological enhancements and continued board vision and commitment, the system has grown to incorporate online lessons and online transmission of course work, while allowing for one-on-one student:teacher engagement. It has also empowered greater student learning through better utilization of teachers, allowing more students to access specialized teaching for higher-level courses. The Prairie Spirit board remains committed to offering quality learning opportunities to all Prairie Spirit students, regardless of where they live in the division.
Through this system, we have also been able to substantially cut phone costs (by approximately $30,000 annually) through the use of VOIP technology for division phones, and the system transmits our bus radio system (saving another $34,000 annually) while providing for greater safety for our transported students. The system also has the capacity to offer professional development for our staff, and board meetings have seamlessly transferred to the online format during our time of social distancing.
When the province halted in-person classes in March, Prairie Spirit students from middle school to high school were sent home with Chromebooks to access their courses and learning through our distance ed system. Primary students have also been able to utilize our technology to access teachers and course work.
The biggest challenge we have faced has been the lack of reliable internet connections outside of the school setting, due to inadequate rural internet services. We have sought to address this problem by offering internet in our parking lots so that students who are unable to access the internet at home, can download information at the school and submit assignments and questions back to their teachers the same way.
Distance learning has not occurred without challenges. Our students and families have worked with us as our system has developed. Our divisional staff have worked to build, maintain and regularly update the system, and our teachers use it on a regular basis to offer high-quality education to our students. We are grateful to each one for their contribution to getting us to where we are today. During this pandemic, they have all stepped up, going the extra mile to enable student learning through distance education.
The province conducted a Review of Public Education in Manitoba during 2019. This review was to have been released to the public in March, but due to the pandemic its release has been delayed, with no date currently set for release. There is concern in the education community that this review may recommend massive change to public education, perhaps larger amalgamations, and perhaps the elimination of school boards.
Our experience in Prairie Spirit has shown the direct benefit of local school boards to local students, schools and communities. Without the vision, foresight, courage and persistence of the Prairie Spirit Board of Trustees, in combination with prudent school board financial management, distance learning would not be where it is today for the students of Prairie Spirit.
Many core high school courses would be offered by telephone or solely online with no direct student-teacher interaction, and many course options would be unavailable to our students.
For the cost of a mere 0.6 per cent of the school division’s budget to operate the board of trustees, the ratepayers of Prairie Spirit ensure that local people address local educational needs specific to the students living in our communities.
Ultimately we all benefit, as today’s well-educated students are tomorrow’s small business owners, farmers, health-care providers, educators, and other members of the workforce and citizenry of our communities, province and world.
The value of a locally elected school board has been evident in Prairie Spirit for a number of years, and has been further highlighted during the pandemic. We can only hope that the authors of the Manitoba Education Review considered the capacity of local school boards to solve local problems creatively.
Now, we encourage the provincial government to consider the strong value of local school boards to their communities, its ratepayers and the students they serve as they act upon the review.
Jan McIntyre is chair of the Prairie Spirit School Division Board of Trustees, and she writes here on behalf of that body.