As governments around the world strive to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures have impacted close to 90% of students. The Cree School Board (CSB) is following the Quebec government’s precautionary measure to close all education institutions until at least May 1, with a tentative plan to keep schools shut the following two weeks for Goose Break.
“We are honouring the upcoming Goose Break for all schools,” stated CSB Director General Abraham Jolly. “During this time of uncertainty, public health remains our priority, however we want to reassure you that student success continues to be at the heart of what we do at the Cree School Board.”
Jolly added that their staff and partners are collaborating to ensure students have opportunities to continue their learning and progress towards graduation. Additional online teaching resources for all grade 1-3 students in english and french launched April 3 on the Eeyou Education website, while the rest of the grades and Cree-language material will be online the following week. Potential interactive learning options are also being considered.
Each department within the CSB has rapidly adapted to the unfolding events, with many employees now working from home. Employees are preparing coordinated responses based on various contingency plans, such as whether the school year can be completed following Goose Break.
“Our IT department has really mobilized on that and been innovative in their thinking,” said CSB Chairperson Sarah Pash. “They have made sure there’s access to our virtual private network for those employees who need it, which means we can operate things like payroll and H/R services remotely. It’s made it a lot easier to keep the student board moving and our employees supported.”
While daycares will remain closed, emergency childcare is provided for essential workers with no alternative support. This free service is available for children aged 5 to 13 during regular hours of the work week – those who need the service can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
With most post-secondary institutions shutting down, moving classes online and asking students to vacate campus housing, the CSB is helping Cree students return to their home communities if they so choose. Students pursuing post-secondary programs in other provinces are encouraged to verify their institution’s closure extensions and the status of remaining exams.
“As soon as the announcements were made about universities and colleges closing, our post-secondary department was in touch with students, telling them if they felt they needed to travel home we were here to support them,” Pash told the Nation. “The other thing we’ve done is made sure that allowances are released early for post-secondary students and that they also get a special supplementary allowance.”
This additional funding will help compensate for internet access or specialized technology that students might need to complete their terms, especially for those students with young children to support. Students who remain in the south are advised to stay in regular contact with the CSB’s post-secondary student services.
“We’re very aware there’s a lot of anxiety out there among both students and parents about how we’re going to manage promotions and deal with graduation,” Pash noted. “Right now, we’re going through a huge review of all student files to see how much of their program they have completed up to this point. We’ll be connecting with teachers to see what their individual assessments of students are.”
The CSB is taking an individual approach to evaluating each student’s progress and determining their readiness to pass to the next grade. This assessment is particularly critical for those students preparing to graduate.
“We’re already making plans to ensure our students are able to achieve their graduation requirements in some way,” Pash said. “Our job is to make sure we take a very rational and fair approach and make sure we’re not shortchanging them in terms of the education that they were supposed to receive.”
The province cancelled this year’s ministerial exams, standardized assessments that typically weigh heavily in students’ final marks, on March 22. This gives the CSB significant flexibility in evaluating students seeking to pursue college or university programs next year. The deadlines for post-secondary applications will also be extended.
“Once all this assessment is done, we’ll be able to move into looking at how we support those students who are going into post-secondary next year,” said Pash. “Because those students are going to be missing a little less than a third of their school year, we’re going to have to figure out the types of supports that we put into place.”
Parents home with their children will also have new online supports, both from the CSB website and the province. Quebec’s Education Ministry has stated that a list of optional grade-specific educational activities will be provided to parents by email or post by April 6.
Some teachers have used Zoom or Facebook Live to provide online lessons. Many students are creating virtual science fairs and reading groups or exploring virtual museum tours. Parents could exercise math skills by getting children involved in family budgets, calculating distances or measuring ingredients.
Pash emphasized that these activities are completely optional. Rather than turning homes into classrooms, she said, parents can use this opportunity to practice traditional land-based education while strengthening bonds with their children. As kids may be confused and scared by this isolation period, providing emotional support is a parent’s most important role.
Ultimately, Pash is enthusiastic about how Cree leadership has rallied to coordinate communications and emergency measures. The effectiveness with which staff have transitioned to remote working conditions may even be successfully leveraged once this situation eventually passes.
“There’s huge problem-solving from all our staff going on during this period,” Pash said. “Our teachers have really been impressive, wondering how they can help support students. I’ve been getting a lot of messages from teachers about how much they miss their students and being in their schools and classrooms.”