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Cree School Board completes a unique academic year during pandemic

BY Patrick Quinn Jun 15, 2020

While in-class instruction for this school year was suspended in March, the Cree School Board (CSB) has remained busy supporting students throughout this extraordinary period. With a new online learning platform (OLP) and other support services to administer, it has been a learning experience for everyone.

The submission deadline for Secondary 1 to 3 OLP assignments was June 5, though it was extended an extra week to June 12 for Secondary 4 and 5 students. As an extraordinary measure, certain students in these upper levels who are very close to completion also received extra in-class tutoring support.   

“The executive committee passed a resolution to allow certain students into the schools to give some in-person support with teachers,” said CSB chairperson Sarah Pash. “We worked that out with public health and have really strict protocols in place to do that. This is a special measure so that we’re able to reach every student we possibly can before we have to submit their results to the ministry for this term.”

Public health agreed that this was an essential service because it involves people’s futures. To ensure adequate physical distancing in respect of pandemic precautions, there was a very limited number of students involved with close supervision of handwashing and contact with classroom materials. 

While Pash hopes these additional efforts will get as many students as possible on track for graduation, it’s less clear how the CSB will support those still needing credits. Quebec’s Ministry of Education is not offering their typical makeup exams this summer and in-class summer school is not yet possible. 

Although most students impressively adapted to online learning when Covid-19 arrived, about one-quarter of Sec 5 and a larger number of younger students haven’t engaged with the OLP. This is partly a result of technological barriers, such as lacking home internet access, but some students and their parents have decided to wait until in-person classes resume. 

“Online learning is not for everybody and we recognize that,” Pash told the Nation. “It’s not ideal as the sole way of offering learning experiences – that’s something we need to respect. We’re here to meet the needs of diverse learners and we have to support each individual student in the best way possible.”

As the school year wraps up, the CSB is entering an evaluation period to determine which students were able to engage, which supports helped them and what improvements could be made to overcome barriers. An important discovery is that a significant proportion of students do enjoy online learning and alternate paths to meeting course requirements.

“This period has shown us we need to broaden our ways of offering education,” said Pash. “I think that moves us forward into next year from a real position of strength because we’ve learned how to do it. Even if we’re largely back to normal and able to offer in-person classes, we’ll still be able to offer options for online learning and alternative ways of obtaining credit.”

Pash believes Sabtuan Adult Education is well equipped to continue General Education online if necessary. A partnership between the CSB, the Eeyou-Eenou Community Foundation and the Mastercard Foundation has yielded a generous supply of laptops and technical support for adult ed students. 

Distance learning resources have been available for all General Education and some Vocational Training courses on an optional basis since May. The future of the latter, which often requires greater hands-on support, will depend on the evolving pandemic situation.

“We have various scenarios and I’m very confident we’ll be able to move into the start of school with a plan in place,” asserted Pash. “We’re looking at ways to offer some sort of virtual experience if we need to and protocols to bring people into Vocational Training situations in-person safely.”

With so many unknowns about how the pandemic will impact societies in coming months, the CSB is planning for different possibilities in each of its education sectors. For instance, post-secondary students are normally funded to go to their place of study, but with numerous colleges and universities already committing to exclusively online education for next fall, the CSB must re-examine its policies.

“This period is forcing us to think creatively and innovate in so many different ways,” Pash explained. “In a lot of ways, it’s forced us to come into the present because we weren’t able to offer online learning opportunities before. It’s probably something that all school boards should be able to do and we know online options have been available in post-secondary studies for a number of years now.”

The dedication with which teachers and other employees have embraced the changing circumstances has been particularly encouraging as the CSB faces an uncertain future. Administration staff have tirelessly developed and maintained the OLP, ensuring students can access the resources they need – even printing out packages and delivering them to students when necessary. 

“We’ve seen so many actions of real love and caring for the community and students,” said Pash. “We’ve seen teachers sitting outside of students’ houses reading stories, teachers participating in drive-bys, principals delivering work to students and encouraging them to keep going. That’s the kind of thing that’s kept us going during this time.”

Although there remain many unresolved questions regarding the upcoming school year, this crisis has undoubtedly created exciting opportunities that can only strengthen the CSB in the long-term. Pash feels that expanding learning options enables them to improve student engagement, which will make a real difference to completion rates at all levels.

“I’m grateful that we’ve moved through this period with our communities being minimally affected by the virus,” she said. “But I’m also grateful for the opportunities it’s given us to be innovative and take a real problem-solving approach to the ways we’ve been doing things and what makes sense going forward.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.