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Community schools in Pembina Hills see huge enrolment decreases while Vista Virtual School sees huge gains

PHSD maintaining staffing levels for now thanks to $2 million injection in federal funding to help with COVID-19 related costs
New Pembina HIlls Sign
Community schools within the Pembina Hills School Division have experienced a 10.15 per cent decrease in enrolment from projections completed earlier this year due to students choosing options like distance learning or homeschooling. On the plus side, registration in Vista Virtual School has increased by 551 students.

BARRHEAD/WESTLOCK-While Pembina Hills’ distance learning program, Vista Virtual School, has seen a huge increase in enrolment this fall, there are 368 fewer students than originally projected attending community schools within the division.

And while a $2 million grant from the federal government is helping Pembina Hills to maintain staffing levels, the division is facing massive uncertainties when it comes to budgeting for the 2021-2022 school year.

“The worry is, what happens next year?” said board chair Jennifer Tuininga. “It’s very difficult to predict budgets for next year and staffing … because we just don’t’ know what will happen with a number of those students who have chosen other schooling.”

During their Oct. 14 meeting, the Pembina Hills board of trustees reviewed the division’s official enrolment count as of Sept. 30, 2020.

Excluding Vista Virtual School (VVS), community schools across Pembina Hills were projecting to have a total of 3,624 students this fall, but ended up with a total of 3,317 students. That roughly works out to a 10.15 per cent decrease from enrolment projections.

Incidentally, that includes 61 pre-Kindergarten children and 252 Kindergarten students.

The impact has been felt the strongest at the largest schools in the division. R.F. Staples School in Westlock has 80 fewer students than projected, while Westlock Elementary School is down 77 students.

Barrhead Composite High Schools has 75 fewer students than projected, followed by Barrhead Elementary School with 62 fewer students.

Swan Hills School and Eleanor Hall School in Clyde are each down 43 students. Busby School is down eight students, Fort Assiniboine and Pembina North Community School each lost three students and Dunstable’s enrolment is down by one.

Interestingly, Neerlandia Public Christian School actually gained 20 students over earlier projections, while the Outreach program in Westlock is also up 29 students.

As indicated earlier, Vista Virtual School had originally projected an enrolment of 1,959 students but ended up with 2,510 students, an increase of 551.

Tuininga said it is believed that of the 368 students who did not enroll at community schools, 202 of them registered at VVS, while 166 either chose homeschooling or other online schools.

In early September, Supt. Dave Garbutt had reported to the board that Pembina Hills was set to receive just over $2 million from the federal government to assist with costs relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As well, Pembina Hills was also set to receive a portion of $12 million in funds specifically meant for distance learning programs, though Garbutt still wasn’t sure how much of that money they would get as of Oct. 14. (A recommendation related to that funding is likely coming at the Oct. 28 meeting.)

However, Tuininga was able to confirm that the $2 million is being used by Pembina Hills to maintain staffing levels despite the dip in enrolment.

As a result, the federal funding is effectively helping Pembina Hills “to keep our class sizes lower,” Tuininga said.

For instance, at Barrhead Composite High School, the budgeted target PTR (Pupil Teacher Ratio) was 20 students, but it’s actually coming in at 17.81.

Likewise, R.F. Staples had budgeted for a target PTR of 20 students, but the actual ratio is 17.44.

But again, that goes back to what will happen next year, said Tuininga, stressing that the federal government is unlikely to pitch in again with another $2 million grant.

Kevin Berger,