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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Back to school; Preparing for a less restrictive school year

BY Ben Powless Aug 30, 2021

Despite a difficult experience since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Cree School Board Chairperson Sarah Pash is confident that Eeyou Istchee is ready for a return to almost-normal classroom activities. 

“We can’t say the past year has been easy – it has been quite challenging – but I’m so proud of the way our teachers and staff rose to the challenges and spent all their energy on students and putting students first,” Pash told the Nation

Pash acknowledges the toll that the past academic year took its toll on staff, parents and students. “We’re dealing with Covid fatigue. Our staff went through a very trying period and had to adapt in ways they didn’t envision before; they were very dedicated and showed a lot of love and care for the students. Students also had to adapt; they were very resilient, and they were able to pretty much get through anything that was thrown at them,” Pash said. 

The CSB will address mental health and well-being for all stakeholders. Stress, anxiety and isolation have impacted all involved, and the lack of contact with teachers and their interpersonal instruction mean that many students haven’t progressed as they would have in a classroom setting.

The CSB will prioritize keeping children in schools as much as possible, beginning with a return under Schedule A – the least restrictive that schools can be right now. As during the past year, students will have stable class groups, extended to socially distanced bus seating. Secondary students will continue to wear masks in most indoor areas, though not in classes. 

Pash said that parents are a key factor in the success of students, with many working full-time while lending support to their children. “The thing we learned as parents – and I’m including myself – is how difficult it can be during periods of online learning, when you’re trying to do your own work, and manage home life, that you’re there to support your child while they’re learning online.”

The CSB will continue to ensure every secondary student is provided with a laptop in case they are needed for online learning, but the goal is to keep that as a last-resort option. “Last year was a year where we prepared ourselves and figured out what needed to get done, where we looked at online scenarios, and this year we’re ready to go with it. We’re hoping it doesn’t happen, but we are prepared,” said Pash. 

However, the technology for online learning has also opened new possibilities. Pash says that the CSB is considering offering advanced courses in math and science, which would allow students to gain prerequisites for high-demand post-secondary programs, such as health sciences. 

Pash said that another lesson learned during the pandemic is the importance of collaboration at a local and regional level, including local public health officials and parents.

Graduation ceremonies are currently being planned for students from the past year, and information should be released within each community in the coming weeks. Plans are for in-person events, but that will be determined locally. 

“For the students in our schools now, we can only see great things in their future, and we need to nurture those strengths and ensure their needs are met, and their goals and dreams remain viable,” Pash shared. “We also need to complement the work parents and caretakers have done to focus on what’s important for students and to make sure their needs are met.” 

The pandemic also affected adult education by reducing class sizes, noted CSB Adult Education Director Nian Matoush. 

“We were quite impacted in the number of students we could accommodate, so I can only imagine how frustrating that must have been for those students intent on completing their courses,” Matoush told the Nation

Matoush said facilities are often rented in communities and aren’t standardized. So, to accommodate social distancing, they were forced to limit the number of students. In response, some of the curriculum moved online so students could finish course assignments at home while attending class part-time. 

“It was positively received because it was more flexible. Since our students are often parents and have other responsibilities, they could do coursework outside of usual hours,” Matoush said. 

Sabtuan Adult Education Services also focused on acquiring laptops for students, and even provided quality internet connections for those who needed it. 

Nevertheless, Matoush says that the return to classes will be “quite different,” with a mix of online and in-person learning. Several vocational training programs that were shut down entirely will be brought back in the fall. New programs to be offered will be based on community feedback, which indicated a desire for more culturally based programs.

To that end, Sabtuan will introduce a program in protection and development of wildlife habitats, starting in Mistissini in the winter. Right now, they are connecting with local Elders and defining the needs for training and manpower that exist in this field. 

Another new program will focus on refrigeration, now in high demand for communities that rely on outside expertise to service equipment in arenas. One new program is a 300-hour-long course on starting a business that can be combined with a vocational skill to help establish new entrepreneurs in Cree communities.

The CSB recently held an online Adult Learner Day to acknowledge and celebrate student efforts. Students sent in photos and videos showcasing their creative projects, allowing educators and students from across Eeyou Istchee to participate together for the first time. 

“People were so happy to have that connection. We found this one moment to celebrate student success,” Matoush shared.

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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.