While the Cree School Board (CSB) knew they would face unprecedented challenges when the pandemic struck, what it would mean for this year’s graduating class was difficult to imagine. Despite the difficulties of finishing the year without in-class teaching, however, they are now celebrating one of Eeyou Istchee’s largest-ever graduating classes.
In addition to the 172 grads as of the end of June, many more are currently completing course requirements in summer school. Graduation ceremonies are expected to be held in each community in late August after these summer classes are finished, in accordance with established public health protocols.
“We’re going to see different types of graduation celebrations this year, but I think they’ll be even more meaningful because of what our students have been through,” said CSB chairperson Sarah Pash. “This year we’re not just recognizing that students have graduated but also the resilience and determination they possess. I know they’re coming out of this stronger and empowered and it means great things for all of us in the future.”
When classes were halted in mid-March, the CSB immediately began developing an online learning platform that enabled students at all levels to resume their studies just a few weeks later. These new digital resources were supplemented by support from teachers and other school staff to give students every possible tool to succeed.
“It shows us when we are hit with these types of situations that we have the resources within the Cree School Board and our communities to come up with effective solutions very quickly,” Pash told the Nation. “These efforts at the local level are key to student success and engagement. Moving forward, we’ve learned we really need to value those local partnerships and ways of supporting our students from outside of our schools.”
Soon after classes were disrupted, each Secondary 5 student was contacted by their school with specific requirements and a plan of study to guide them to graduation using the online platform. Although most students adapted well to submitting their assignments by email, the CSB also supported those who didn’t fully engage with digital learning.
“When the deadline to complete was coming up, we worked with public health to bring students struggling with the online learning environment back to the schools so they could receive in-person support from teachers and mentors,” Pash explained. “It made a huge difference for them. We have to acknowledge that students need different modes of teaching presented to them.”
Since last year, the CSB has offered summer school in all communities to encourage more students to complete their studies. The same model will be applied this year, augmented with the online learning platform and some in-person instruction. Tutors from the Elephant Thoughts organization are assisting students in five communities.
“I’m rooting for my classmates so they can graduate too,” said Reshawn Metabie-Matoush, who completed his Sec 5 studies in Mistissini this year. “It was tough at the beginning, not knowing what to do, so I messaged my teacher for help with the online platform. I have seven siblings at home, so it was challenging – I’m happy and excited.”
Metabie-Matoush announced his graduation to his family by baking a cake, just one creative example of how these achievements are being celebrated. Mistissini’s school principal and leadership team toured the community in a “gradmobile”, presenting treats and congratulatory signs at grads’ homes or workplaces.
“Everyone was overjoyed to see their family member graduate and rallied around them,” said Kim Quinn, CSB’s director of school operations. “It was amazing to pull up and see them looking out the window because they didn’t know what was happening at first. I thought that was really special, just personal touches every school leader brought to their students.”
The sense of emotion and relief is palpable when speaking with some of these graduates. Many had to overcome significant personal obstacles to reach this point, in some cases balancing studies with being a teenaged single mother as the pandemic turned their world upside-down.
“I thought the real world was fake,” shared Anna-Jade Napash, a new mother in Chisasibi. “I paused all my work for almost three months, but I finished it all and somehow I still graduated. It feels amazing – I feel free. The next step is college in Montreal. I’d like to be a biomedical scientist and a writer.”
With post-secondary institutions offering mostly online or hybrid programs in the coming semester, the CSB recently changed policy to allow sponsorship of students pursuing these programs, whether they remain in their communities or live in their locales of study. They also approved increased financial support for post-secondary students, who have received compensation since May, in part so they didn’t have to return to their home communities and risk transmitting the virus.
“We’re working hard to support students in that way to help them enter the next school year in a position where they’re not in financial trouble,” said Pash. “It’s very difficult for a lot of our post-secondary students and Sec 5 graduates to get the types of summer employment they would normally access.”
As the CSB considers various contingency plans for whatever the coming year brings, they’re taking a fresh look at current policies and surveying students to determine future needs. There’s little doubt that online programming will become a more prominent part of the CSB’s future, alongside individualized in-person instruction.
“Our students do respond to this learning platform and I think they’ve risen to this challenge,” Quinn commented. “They’ve had to overcome more challenges than any of us have ever experienced in high school and persevered through all of that. They’re a testament to what is really possible.”