It’s a question that school officials across the globe are being forced to ask: can we safely reopen classrooms? If so, how? If not, how can we still support children’s education?
In Eeyou Istchee, those decisions are being made by the Cree School Board (CSB) in consultation with the Cree Health Board and leadership from each community as they prepare to welcome students back to school August 27.
“Our guiding principles are to ensure the health and safety of everyone. That means handwashing, cleaning surfaces, following distancing requirements – especially for adults,” explained Kim Quinn, Director of School Operations for the Cree School Board.
The CSB has prepared for three different scenarios, depending on the risk at any given time.
Educators are currently preparing for the first scenario, in which there is a low risk of infection. This would see kids return to schools with several changes implemented – including those outlined by Quinn – as well as daily health questionnaires and a goal to have a maximum of 15 students in a classroom at once.
Other measures include reducing the amount of foot traffic within the school by keeping children in the same room all day – instead moving teachers. Masks will also be required for teachers and support staff who are unable to distance. As well, more support staff will be hired to clean surfaces and monitor school entrances.
In a medium-risk situation, schools would remain open, but with more restrictions that may include stricter distancing requirements and other unannounced measures.
In a scenario of high infection risk, schools would close. Studies would take place online, with teachers playing a virtual role while potentially dropping off materials at students’ homes.
“If we get a situation like we had in March, we need to be prepared to work with an online platform, especially for our Secondary 4-5 students,” Quinn told the Nation.
She added that they still needed to figure out how to prepare students to use this technology, including learning how to use email and other apps and programs, but what they’ve seen so far is that students are engaging with an online approach.
An update released by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) stated that the CSB has ordered 900 laptops for both youth and adults. Discussions about partnering with tech companies to secure more resources to ensure all kids have online access are taking place, added Quinn.
Quinn noted the CSB was able to loan laptops to Secondary 4-5 students when classes were initially interrupted, and they’ll be looking to see what they can do for other students.
Angela Bearskin-Gates, Interim Director of Education Services for the CSB, says that as a mother herself, she understands that some parents are uneasy with sending their kids back to school. That’s why the CSB will continue to develop online learning platforms for parents who may want to educate their children from home at the start of the school year.
The school board will also be looking to connect with parents via a general survey, or at community or regional meetings to communicate more detail about possible scenarios. The talks would also provide a sense about how people are feeling, if they have any questions or concerns, and if they’re comfortable with assisting with online learning.
Bearskin-Gates noted that the CSB is considering other ways of learning. “I’ve reached out to our cultural department about maybe having some of our Secondary 4-5 students out learning with Elders,” she mentioned.
Quinn says that it’s still unclear how each school will achieve a maximum of 15 students per class, but that each school and each community will be responding differently. For instance, in Chisasibi, which has 1,400 students in two schools, alternative classroom space may be required.
After schools open in August, adult education will also reopen for the new school year with Sabtuan Adult Education Services scheduled to resume all Vocational Training and General Education courses on September 8. General education will be taught partially online, while Vocational Training will remain in-person with additional health and safety measures
Post-Secondary Student Services is working to support university and college students who study from their home community or return to their schools in the fall. The Cree Teacher Training program is also set to resume in the fall.