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Cree School Board updates school opening plans

BY Ben Powless Aug 25, 2020

A variety of Cree School Board (CSB) officials detailed their plans to safely welcome youth, post-secondary and adult education students and staff back to schools this month during an online address August 18.

The CSB, said Deputy Director General Elma Moses, is working from the principle that students should be in school as much as possible, while it continues to develop procedures to deal with low-, medium- and high-risk scenarios. 

School Operations Director Kim Quinn outlined the litany of changes that would impact students and school operations after the reopening scheduled for August 27-28 in communities considered low-to-medium risk. Under a high-risk scenario, there will be no in-person education and schools will close. 

Perhaps the biggest change will be an effort to keep classes under 15 people, up to a maximum of 20 if necessary. Students will stay in the same classroom, with only teachers moving between rooms. Where possible, outdoor activities will be encouraged for homeroom or specialized classes such as gym or Cree language. 

There will also be staggered timetables – student groups will have different arrival, departure and recess times. On buses, students can sit with members of that group or members of their household, but must keep the same seat, and stay two metres from the driver. 

No social distancing will be required for students once in the classroom. However, students from Grade 5 to Secondary 5 will be required to wear masks in all common areas, such as hallways. Parents of children under Grade 5 will have to make the decision whether their child is to wear a mask or not.

Teachers will be asked to maintain two-metre physical distancing or wear a mask if approaching individual students. 

A hygiene regime includes cleaning common surfaces after any group has used them, buses to be cleaned between each group or trip, teaching hygiene and handwashing to younger children, and an increased focus on proper handwashing.

In larger communities, the CSB will be looking to find additional class spaces. There will be extra training days and professional development days for teachers as well. 

Students will also be asked to complete a daily health questionnaire, either online or in person, confirming their temperature, whether they have symptoms or whether they’ve had contact with anyone who tested positive. 

In the case of schools being shut and students being forced to rely on online learning, Quinn acknowledged that not every family has access to laptops to facilitate online learning, and that the CSB planned a survey to determine what materials are required. 

Quinn said that over 80% of Secondary 4 and 5 students were able to access online learning in the spring, but that a “more robust plan” is needed to ensure the needs of all students and parents are met. 

The CSB focussed on providing laptops to students in Secondary 4-5 to ensure they didn’t fall behind, according to Jolly, but will now also support students in Secondary 1, 2 and 3. The CSB was already supporting post-secondary students and adult learners with credit for laptop purchases before the pandemic. 

Quinn encouraged parents to register in a new section of the Eeyou education homepage. She still encouraged parents who prefer to keep their children home to sign up online so that the CSB could answer concerns about attending in person or work to support an education plan. 

Pauline Trapper-Hester, Director of Post-Secondary Student Services, noted that 602 post-secondary students had indicated that they were returning to study this fall. 

Based on a survey sent to all students, fewer than 1% of students decided to cancel their fall studies. About 61% were expecting to work fully online, while 4% expected to return to studies on-campus. The remaining 35% anticipating a mixture of online and on-campus education. Around 80% said they had received information from their schools to help them prepare for the fall. 

Trapper-Hester said that all students will be given financial support whether studying in person or online, and that students in community with active leases will be sponsored for living and lodging. For students in Montreal or Ottawa/Gatineau, post-secondary offices will be open, but schedules will be put in place to use the student lounge, library and computer rooms.

Additionally, any students who did not pass the Winter 2020 semester will not be placed on academic probation this year, as would normally happen.

Jolly clarified that any decision to close schools would go through public health officials, principally Dr. Faisca Richer, Director of Public Health at the Cree Health Board and Social Services of James Bay. 

More questions will be answered on a FAQ section of the Eeyou education website, in addition to local virtual community information sessions planned for August 24-25. The information session is supposed to be archived and available from the website.

CSB Director General Abraham Jolly acknowledged that there is still anxiety over the reopening.

“Learning that Eeyou Istchee has been Covid-free for 100 days gives us room to feel a bit more assured that we can enter into this realm of reopening schools,” Jolly told the Nation. “There’s some comfort in that, but we will be taking strong measures to ensure the health and safety of students and staff.” 

Finally, CSB Chairperson Sarah Pash underlined the board’s gratitude to employees for their work since March to ensure the health and safety of students, staff and community members. 

“We saw principals delivering schoolwork and packages to students’ homes, teachers reading to students from their driveways, and school teams driving around cheering up students, trying hard to maintain engagement and connection,” Pash explained.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.