Virtual meeting for Chinook

The regular Chinook School Division board meeting took place virtually via video conference, April 12.

The Chinook School Division’s human resources department responded successfully to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic during the past year.

Superintendent of Human Resources Ken Garinger provided details of the department’s activities during the presentation of the human resources monitoring report at a regular Chinook School Division board meeting, which took place via video conference on April 12.

He discussed the details of the report with the Prairie Post during a telephone interview on April 14. The pandemic has highlighted the variety of tasks carried out by the human resources department to support school division staff and activities. The department helped to achieve the school division’s goal to keep students and staff safe and healthy.

“Wellness was our goal, and I think we've done a fantastic job with that,” he said.

New tasks were carried out as part of the school division’s response to the pandemic, including the creation of training videos.

“I worked with some teachers and we did a training video on how to use the chemical that we have for disinfecting classrooms,” he mentioned. “So teachers have this tool and they can disinfect classrooms and know how to in the appropriate way.”

The human resources department had to manage and track quarantine codes and it kept abreast of the latest public health regulations and other legal changes. It then had to make changes to internal procedures and inform staff about these changes.

“And so making sure people understood what the language meant and working with our legal department to ensure we had everything accurate that way,” he said.

The creation of new online learning options for students required the implementation of hiring practices within a brief period.

“There's been some urgency to get some hiring done in a very short period of time,” he said. “At one point we've put teachers in place for the Cyber School and we had to do that in a week and a half or so. It wasn't a lot of turnaround time.”

The Chinook School Division received provincial funding to create a fully operational K-9 online learning environment. Fifteen staff were hired for the current school year and they provide learning to approximately 200 students.

The school division had 970 employees at the end of February. There were 455 full and part-time in-scope teachers and 515 support staff. This is an increase compared to the number of employees a year ago, when there were 953 contracted staff. There were 514 support staff and 439 teachers last year.

This increase in teaching staff is due to the demands of the new learning environment during the pandemic. Teachers are required for the expanded Cyber School and in some schools the staffing changed due to the need to reduce classroom sizes.

“It was all related to the pandemic and trying to support where we could and trying not to take away from the buildings,” he said. “Realistically I think we did a very good job of trying to keep our student numbers as low as possible in schools across the entire division. So where a school had some students go to the online learning environment, we didn't take away staff, other than one situation where we used a little bit of teaching staff in one school. But other than that, we hired externally or we accommodated staff who needed to be in the online environment.”

The additional teachers required due to the pandemic were appointed on temporary contracts. Garinger’s expectation therefore is that teaching staff numbers will be lower in the next school year, but it will depend on the pandemic situation.

“We put together an online school in a short period of time and we'll do the same thing again if necessary,” he said. “I don't know if we're going to have that circumstance again next year or not. … We're hopeful that come September everybody will be back in our schools and we're back to business as what we would have thought of as usual with maybe a few other learnings from the pandemic.”

There are currently 161 substitute teachers, which is lower than usual, because a number of them are now employed on temporary contracts. The assignment of substitute teacher to different schools was changed due to the pandemic.

“It was limited in terms of the number of schools to keep fewer contact points and fewer places where you got people moving in multiple buildings to keep transmission rates low,” he explained. “That was a huge task, but it was an important one, and we manage that to this day, as we continue to limit the number of connection points to the schools.”

Employee onboarding will usually be done face-to-face, but due to COVID-19 the human resources department had to revise these procedures and this is now done virtually. This requires that all employees, whether full-time or casual, have an assigned e-mail address to receive communications.

Further changes to PowerSchool, which is their human resources information system, will be ready in September to improve the virtual onboarding process even further. 

Although there are still face-to-face interactions during the hiring of staff, these meetings now tend to take place virtually.

The school division provided placements during the current school year to 13 teacher interns from the University of Regina, two interns from the University of Saskatchewan, and one student teacher from the First Nations University of Canada.

The school division also assisted other universities in western Canada with student placements, because their teacher students were unable to go to their previously arranged intern locations due to the pandemic. This resulted in agreements with the University of Lethbridge, University of Alberta, and Trinity Western University.

“It was great and we wanted to support,” he said. “Lots of these student teachers graduated from Chinook schools. … They needed a student placement location and so universities reached out and we ended up with even more connections, which is great, because that builds relationship too with those schools.”

Such connections with different teacher education programs are important to ensure the school division can find new teachers to replace those who retire. There will be 12 teacher retirements effective June 2021 and four teachers who will retire in June 2022 are currently participating in the transition to retirement program.

It is already a challenge to find candidates for some specialist teaching positions, but Garinger said the school division will be able to manage succession planning if annual teacher retirements do not grow bigger than 12 to 15 individuals.

The teaching staffing formula is linked to student numbers, which means future lower enrolment can have an impact on resources to staff schools. He therefore felt the teacher staffing formula needs to be reviewed to ensure it addresses the needs of the school division. Teacher positions are currently over formula by 21 FTE.

“Let's make sure the formula addresses all the aspects that are necessary so that we have the right number of staff in each of the locations,” he said. “I'm not talking about reduction here, although obviously we're over the formula that exists right now, but maybe the formula isn't accurate then. Maybe we need to look at that. The formula needs to make sure we address all the specific needs in the division, and this one addresses student numbers and that's it.”

The Chinook School Division’s switched to the Apply to Education job application website during the previous school year has proven to be a good decision. The cost to operate this platform is lower and the number of applications received is an average of 6.1 application submissions per position advertised. The advantages of this platform will increase even more due to the implementation of changes to allow closer integration between Apply to Education and PowerSchool.

“That's going to be absolutely huge,” he said. “It's going to help to make things even more lean in terms of our processes and that sort of thing. It's very user friendly.”

The job application process for all positions, including bus drivers, are done through Apply to Education. The human resources department was unable to have any in-person recruitment fairs for bus drivers since last year due to the pandemic, but it supported the hiring process for 29 bus driver vacancies. Garinger noted there is currently a shortage of casual bus drivers in almost the entire school division and applications can be submitted through their Apply to Education website.

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