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Cree School Board preparations for renewed pandemic protocols aids in shift to distance learning

BY Patrick Quinn Jan 30, 2021

The Cree School Board (CSB) is delaying the resumption of in-person instruction following the Christmas break because of the Covid-19 outbreak in several communities. 

All schools have moved to higher alert levels with accompanying preventative public-health measures. As of January 20, the inland communities of Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini, Waswanipi and Nemaska were in Scenario C, meaning all students there will be learning online.

“We’re consulting with public health regularly to see if we should adjust the scenarios before returning to in-person instruction,” said Kim Quinn, CSB director of school operations. “We didn’t see a need to do anything board-wide at this time, but we’ll see as things move forward how to best support our teachers and students.”

Three scenarios were developed in accordance with Ministry of Education guidelines in September to help schools plan the type of instruction, activities and support services they can safely provide. Fortunately, schools were able to maintain in-person instruction under Scenario A during the fall, as staff were gradually trained in online-teaching methods.

Each school had post-Christmas plans to allocate available staff while returning teachers completed their mandatory two-week self-isolation. They also developed distance-learning packages to prepare for a changing situation. Staff at Scenario C schools received additional training and support for online and blended learning to ensure lessons can begin January 25. 

“We provided a professional development website for all teachers and principals who might need some information on different areas,” said CSB Education Services Director Cynthia House. “We have subject-specific resources and a lot of digital skills, so it’s easily accessible for them. We put a lot information about self-care, and how they can manage their mental health.”

In addition to more than 100 training videos, teachers received instruction on working with Microsoft Teams, the platform used for online classrooms. While some teachers are already using the program, adapting to the new technology will take time for most staff. 

“We’re going to learn as we go,” Quinn told the Nation. “The teachers will keep making adjustments to see what time frame works best for different ages. For example, younger students won’t have as much time online as Sec 4 and 5 will – the ministry sets guidelines for all of that.”

Students and their families were surveyed in the fall to determine their technology needs. It was understood last spring that student readiness for online learning varied widely, but this mode of instruction is now becoming an accepted fact of life.

As a result, Quinn says that more laptops are on order for Sec 4 and 5 students, while those without wifi at home may receive their lessons on USB keys. 

The CSB’s sudden leap into online learning last April came with growing pains, but teachers were excited to integrate more technology for classes this year. As schools complete their first term February 5, online learning is now an accepted resource that may become a regular post-pandemic classroom feature.

As distance learning is a challenge for many, Quinn suggests practicing computer functions as a family – for instance, getting comfortable with the camera, mute button and being online. Experts recommend a personalized space dedicated to learning, ideally a quiet environment with an adult or older sibling available to provide support when necessary. 

Setting a routine helps children stay on task – younger ones may require further explanation about what is expected of them. To minimize the isolating effects of distance learning, encourage virtual socializing while taking breaks to get outside for physical exercise and fun.

“I would like to encourage families to help each other with online learning,” said House. “It’s essential for them to attend these sessions – we cannot simply ignore education when this is going on. There are a lot of issues with learning gaps across the province. I know it must be hard for many parents, but we need to keep at it for the good of students.” 

Although extracurricular activities are currently suspended, Scenario B schools still have certain activities. To minimize risk, students are kept within their respective groups. If groups come together, students must wear masks and stay two metres apart.

Elephant Thoughts, which provides tutoring services for the CSB, had been delivering science engagement activities for stable groups in elementary schools in Chisasibi and Mistissini before Christmas. Learning-enrichment provider Youth Fusion also worked with students in six communities.

“It’s a little more restrictive and the schools have to determine where the programming can happen following the same measures,” explained Quinn. “All our partners are looking to be online in some way so they can continue… keeping in mind the scenarios they’re in and health and safety.” 

At press time, health protocols were still being discussed – the CSB cautions that measures in schools are subject to change. The board is thankful for patience and open-mindedness on the part of both students and parents.

“I commend our teachers, leadership and families,” Quinn said. “We’re managing change as this evolves. Looking back to the resilience of students in the spring, we still see that at all levels. We’re much more adaptable than I think we realized we were.”

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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.