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The Cree School Board’s compassionate response to an uncertain world

BY Patrick Quinn Jan 15, 2021

While the Covid pandemic created many challenges for the Cree School Board (CSB), it’s also been an opportunity to reassess longstanding policies and develop innovative solutions for meeting the changing needs of students. 

The success of public-health measures enabled schools to reopen last fall and provide in-person instruction. As teachers returned to communities following the holiday break, many used their two-week quarantine to improve their teaching techniques with the online learning platform.

“There’s been a lot of exploration and experimentation this year,” said Sarah Pash, the CSB’s chairperson. “I know a lot of teachers have been experimenting with different ways of approaching online instruction, even though it hasn’t been necessary. We’re all grateful we were able to provide a more normalized experience for our young people.”

Last fall, students were surveyed to determine their capacity for online studies. The CSB’s information technology department loaned laptops to Secondary IV and V students who needed them, and Pash hopes over 2,000 laptops will be distributed in the new year.

“Our education services department, especially our Cree department, have been working hard on beefing up the curriculum online,” Pash told the Nation. “In the spring, we were very concerned because we realized we were unprepared to meet special needs with an online learning platform. Now we’re looking at how to do speech, language and remedial work remotely, through our virtual platform.”

These unprecedented times have given the CSB a chance to address previous technological limitations and leap into the future of education. Recognizing the online learning platform’s power to broaden learning opportunities and provide new ways to engage with students, a few months ago the CSB’s Council of Commissioners approved a new department focused on digital learning.

“The school board has really had to look at its policies and where we might be behind the times,” said Pash. “This period allowed us to take stock of where we are and where we need to develop. We’ve been forced to be innovative and think about how we’re going to meet the needs of students.”

The adult education department has also adapted virtual instruction to meet student needs. While most programs resumed via online learning, many technical education programs requiring in-person instruction have taken longer to implement. 

Adult students have been able to apply for allowances and access laptops from the CSB, the latter secured through a generous donation from the Eeyou-Eenou Community Foundation in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation last June. Sabtuan Adult Education Services is also attempting to remove traditional barriers for people wanting to return to school with a new “direct-to-employment” partnership with the Cree Health Board. 

Applications are currently being accepted for a 35-week beneficiary attendant training program offered in both Chisasibi and Waswanipi, which will provide graduates with a vocational diploma and a guaranteed job offer. With three Elders’ homes expected to open in 2022, qualified caregivers who can speak Cree are in high demand.

The CSB is also anticipating the diverse needs of college and university students. As pandemic restrictions limited summer employment opportunities, the board provided additional financial support with special consideration for those students who are parents.

“We’ve been hearing a lot from postsecondary students about the difficulties of the past term,” said Pash. “It is very difficult to continue to maintain motivation and engagement in an online learning environment. For the most part, our postsecondary students have been at least partially online.”

With many students understandably reluctant to pursue education in Covid “hot zones” and several institutions offering exclusively online content, it’s been necessary to appreciate diverse needs.   

“When we think of supporting postsecondary students, we have to consider their comfort, mental health and ability to concentrate on their schoolwork,” explained Pash. “Last year during the shutdown period, we realized how important it was to focus on each student as an individual. That is the only reason we got through the spring the way we did with the ability to graduate so many students.”

A record-breaking 248 graduates received their high school diploma in 2020, with an overall success rate of 90% – a remarkable increase over the previous year’s 54%. Pash praised the CSB’s extensive network for helping students meet their graduation requirements and said they are similarly attentive as their education journey continues.

“We need to be listening to them very carefully because they are doing important service,” Pash asserted. “Not only for themselves, working on their own futures and qualifications, but we know how important they are for our communities and development as a nation.”

This compassionate approach demonstrates how the CSB looks beyond immediate return on investment to the bigger picture of nation building. Moving into 2021, maintaining this flexibility is a natural response to the rapidly evolving state of education.

“Our role is not only to educate but to make sure we take care of people,” said Pash. “This period has shown us a lot. We’ve learned we are resilient – the sacrifices we made were because we’re all in this together. When we approach what we do with care, love and conviction, we can make great things happen.”

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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.