GTA school boards take unusual step in declaring snow day

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John Malloy isn’t an early riser but the head of Toronto’s public school board was up at 4:45 a.m. Tuesday, without the aid of an alarm clock, because of a gut feeling that he would need to make “a really big decision.”

By about 6 a.m., before a single snowflake had fallen, Malloy had taken the rare step in declaring a snow day — the third in the last two decades — shutting down the Toronto District School Board, impacting thousands of families.

Several school boards across the Greater Toronto Area shut down, while classes at most universities and colleges were cancelled. Some flights were also cancelled at the city’s airports.
Several school boards across the Greater Toronto Area shut down, while classes at most universities and colleges were cancelled. Some flights were also cancelled at the city’s airports.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

“The safest and wisest thing was to close schools,” explained the director of education, during the afternoon as a storm of snow, ice pellets, and freezing rain pummelled the city. “It was the smart move.”

He wasn’t alone in making that call. Several school boards across the Greater Toronto Area also shut down and classes at most universities and colleges were cancelled. There were also disruptions at Toronto’s Billy Bishop and Pearson airports, with flights cancelled.

“Closing schools is something we seldom consider,” explained Malloy of the TDSB which is the largest public school board in Canada with 582 schools and 246,000 students. It’s rarely considered because 90 per cent of students live within walking distance of the school, many parents have to work, which can leave some scrambling about what to do with their children, and staff are supported if they feel they can’t get to work safely.

The last time the board closed was in 2011, when a storm dubbed Snowmageddon failed to deliver the anticipated wallop, leaving some parents saying school officials had overreacted. Prior to that, there was a snow day in 1999, when then-mayor Mel Lastman called in the army to help clear snow.

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“These decisions are important — they are about safety, about family, about service and so we take it very, very seriously,” said Malloy. “All of this happened between 5 a.m. and 6:15 a.m.”

By 5 a.m. transportation staff at the TDSB and the Toronto Catholic District School Board were in joint talks with their bus carrier, which services both boards, about current and forecast weather conditions and road conditions. After the associate directors at both boards made the decision to cancel buses, it was up to the directors to decide on school closures for their boards. Malloy called his counterpart at the TCDSB, Rory McGuckin, and the pair discussed weather conditions and what other boards, universities and colleges were doing. And, he said, they listened to their instincts, both agreeing that closing schools was the best move.

“People sometimes wonder why we don’t make these decisions early and the reason we don’t is because weather changes — and if weather changes and the conditions we expect don’t happen, people get upset,” explained Malloy.

At the Catholic board, the closure affected 196 schools and 95,000 students.

“We don’t take the decision-making process lightly,” said TCDSB spokesperson Shazia Vlahos. “(We’re) always erring on the side of safety for children and staff.”

People wait for the bus in an iced-up bus shelter at Bay and Queen streets. Freezing rain began to fall during the evening commute in Toronto.
People wait for the bus in an iced-up bus shelter at Bay and Queen streets. Freezing rain began to fall during the evening commute in Toronto.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Peel District School Board, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, Halton Catholic District School Board and Halton District School Board also closed schools. In York Region and Durham, public and Catholic school boards cancelled bus service but remained opened, which drew criticism on social media from people who said classes should have also been cancelled.

The early decision by Toronto school boards meant that daycares operating inside of schools were also closed, said city spokesperson Brad Ross. The city also cancelled recreation programs, such as swimming and skating lessons, and at city hall, “non-essential” staff were able to leave work early afternoon.

“We really leave it up to the division head’s discretion in terms of who they’re able to free up to allow to go home,” added Ross. “It’s not unlike, really, how things are dealt with on a Christmas Eve.”

People make their way along the sidewalk on Wellington Street West. With schools closed and many office workers staying home, the downtown core was unusually quiet.
People make their way along the sidewalk on Wellington Street West. With schools closed and many office workers staying home, the downtown core was unusually quiet.  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star)

City services such as 311, garbage collection, and snowplowing continued throughout the day.

Some flights at Toronto’s airports were cancelled or delayed. Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said a “number of considerations” go into cancellations, including weather at the arrival airport, if the airline has space on a later flight to the same destination, or if they can find a larger airplane and consolidate two flights into one.

“We don’t like to cancel flights with lots of connections because then people can get stranded,” he said in an email. “We tend to cancel more short-haul trips on routes with lots of daily flights.”

Once a cancellation is decided, customers are contacted to rebook, he said, urging people to always check their flight status before heading to the airport.

In the region, classes at many universities and colleges were cancelled, including University of Waterloo, Ryerson University and George Brown College.

At the University of Toronto, the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses were closed for the day; however the downtown St. George campus remained open. By midday officials had reversed their decision, cancelling classes after 4 p.m.

A woman crosses Front and Sherbourne streets. Toronto had a mixed bag of snow, rain and ice on Tuesday making driving and walking treacherous.
A woman crosses Front and Sherbourne streets. Toronto had a mixed bag of snow, rain and ice on Tuesday making driving and walking treacherous.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

The initial decision drew sharp criticism from students on social media, who wondered why the downtown campus was open when others were closed.

Third-year English major Lindsay Tramble called this approach a “blatant disregard for the safety of students.”

“As a commuter from Etobicoke I am forced to schlep two hours each way on the TTC through the ice and cold when other colleges/universities have made their students’ safety their number one priority,” she said in an email.

University spokesperson Elizabeth Church, said in an email the decision to cancel classes is based on a number of factors, “including, public transportation, highway conditions and snow and ice removal on campus grounds.” She added, the safety of the community is the top priority when making a decision about class cancellations.

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

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School boards ‘blindsided’ as Ford government slashes program funding

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The Ford government has cut millions in funding for programs that provide after-school jobs for needy teens, classroom tutors for kids, “student success” supports for racialized youth as well as a project focusing on Indigenous issues, the Star has learned.

The province’s 72 school boards received emails late Friday with the list of programs to be cut or that will see funding reduced, and have been scrambling all weekend to figure out the financial impact, given the specialized grant money was promised by the previous Liberal government last March and may have already been spent.

Not all boards necessarily run each of the axed programs, and it may take weeks before each is able to clarify how it will impact students.

“I have serious concerns,” said Maria Rizzo, chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

“I’m sick to my stomach because I’m afraid of the steps that we’ve taken on poverty, on Indigenous education, and even in the Focus on Youth program – we’ve hired our kids, in the most vulnerable school communities, in the neediest neighbourhoods, just to give them a leg up.”

The EPO grant — which is taking a $25 million hit — “has a long track record of wasteful spending, overspending and millions of dollars of unfunded commitments,” said Kayla Iafelice.

“We have performed a thorough review of the EPO Fund to ensure that it better aligns with the needs and priorities of Ontario parents, teachers and students while respecting taxpayer dollars,” she said via email.

For this school year, the EPO (Education Programs — Other) will be $400 million.

Toronto District School Board Chair Robin Pilkey said staff were called into work Saturday to have a look at the numerous emails and attachments sent by the government about the EPO grants – which fund “other” education programs that are typically tied to government priorities and initiatives, and separate from general education grants.

“I would hope that we are not going to be penalized in the middle of the year,” Pilkey said. The government “told people in March that they would get all these EPO grants, and now it’s December.”

“At this point, we don’t have any idea what the dollars are that are attached” to the cancelled programs in the Toronto board, she added. “The information is not great at this point – but there seems to be about 10 that they’re cancelling.”

“Right now, we’re not sure if it’s raising any alarm bells. We’re still trying to figure it out,” she said Saturday.

“I think it could have been done better, and I think the information the boards could have received could have been a lot clearer,” she also said. “I think until we can figure out the exact amount of money, there will be concerns.”

The timing, however, “is bizarre to me,” Pilkey added.

Rizzo said the government only just wrapped up its widespread public consultations on the education system on Saturday, and she would have expected the ministry to listen to what parents want before making such decisions.

“I am truly blindsided by this,” she added.

Friday’s email from the Ministry of Education, obtained by the Star, says it is “committed to supporting our students, so they have the skills to succeed in school, and in life,” but also that “one of the government’s top priorities is making life more affordable for individuals and families – while restoring trust, transparency and accountability to Ontario’s finances.”

It notes the provinces $14.5 billion deficit “and that it “requires substantial transformation for the province to return to a balanced budget. This means that Ontario needs to modernize the way education is funded and make sure that precious tax dollars are having the greatest impact in the classroom.”

Rizzo said the Toronto Catholic board’s international languages instruction is safe, for this year – though noting funding was cut in half after the Progressive Conservative government took office, dropping from $6 million to $3 million. “Now we have a deficit,” she said.

However, because the government had only been in office for 20 days when the board learned of the cutback, she blames the bureaucracy.

“I’m not going to blame the government for doing something they didn’t even know they did,” she added.

Focus on Youth is a program that funds part-time positions for students who live in needy neighbourhoods to work with youth, and was started by the Liberals after a summer of deadly violence involving Toronto youth.

The summer program will continue, but the after-school one will not.

“Believe me when I say to you, it’s a great program,” Rizzo said.

The government’s intentions are not clear, and these cuts “affect schools and parents and communities and kids. Wouldn’t you want to be open and transparent?”

In an email to Toronto public board trustees, obtained by the Star, Director of Education John Malloy said the province will continue to provide funding for the Focus on Youth summer program, updates to broadband, human rights and equity advisers, after school skills and development programs and other mental health and math supports.

Grants were cancelled for tutors in the classroom, student success leaders for racialized students, Indigenous-focused collaborative inquiry, and support for daily physical activity for elementary and secondary students, as well as a program that is for “ensuring equitable access to post-secondary education.”

The Toronto board says such initiatives as community use of schools, Indigenous student leadership, as well as “parent reaching out” grants were not mentioned.

In the Peel District School Board, staff were working to figure out what the changes mean.

“Finance and other Peel District School Board staff are currently reviewing information received from the Ministry of Education on Friday,” said Director of Education Peter Joshua in a statement to the Star.

“It will take some time to analyze and identify the impacts of the ministry’s funding decisions on programs and initiatives planned for the 2018-19 school year. When we’ve determined these impacts, we will communicate them to those who are affected by the changes in funding, including staff, students and families,” Joshua said.

The government memo says it has “carefully reviewed all ministry programs – including all transfer payments – and the government is now focused on making the necessary decisions to reduce spending wherever possible. At the same time, Ontario is making sure that students have what they need to feel safe, supported, and be successful in school.

“At this time, the government has not made any decisions regarding the 2019-20 fiscal year. However, the government will keep balancing the budget as a top priority, and will continue to communicate with you in a timely and transparent manner.”

NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles said “these cuts are going to be deeply felt by children in classrooms. For Doug Ford to take the axe to our kids’ schools is inexcusable.”

Stiles, a former Toronto school board trustee, said “our children need more opportunities and resources — not fewer.”

The education minister’s office said the EPO funding decisions were based on whether projects “provided direct support to students in the classroom” and if they could be “delivered in a more cost-effective mechanism” and had “successful outcomes in the past.”

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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B.C. rec-league hockey player dies after slamming into boards

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A young hockey player who died after slamming into the boards during a game in Langley, B.C., is being remembered by a teammate as a « gentle giant, » and « one of the best players out there. »

Noah Trulsen, 22, was playing in an adult recreational league on Oct. 3 when team member Gerry Leiper says his friend may have caught an edge while rushing to the bench for a line change.

Leiper says he saw Trulsen’s forehead hit the top of the boards and his face shield came down on the bridge of his nose, sending him sprawling to the ice.

Noah Trulsen, left, seen here with his brothers Matthew, middle, and Nick Trulsen, 22, died Oct. 3 after he tripped while rushing to the bench. The B.C. Coroners Office is investigating his death. (Matt Trulsen)

The B.C. Coroners Service says in an email that it is investigating the cause of the young man’s death.

Trulsen’s family is involved in the Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey League and a post on the league’s Facebook site says it is heartbroken by the tragic loss.

The post also included a statement from Trulsen’s mother, Lorraine, thanking the hockey teams on the ice, paramedics, ambulance attendants, police and health-care workers who tried to save their son.

Read more from CBC British Columbia

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