British Columbia

B.C. First Nations schools take a gradual approach to in-class learning

As B.C. schools release their plans to return students to in-person classrooms next month, First Nations communities are devising their own plans they say will better keep their students and staff safe.

At-home learning and outdoor education are some of the safest options, say school administrators

Two hundred elementary students from four Saanich Nations attend ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School on southern Vancouver Island. The W̱SÁNEĆ School Board which runs it has decided to have students stay home at the beginning of the term. (W̱SÁNEĆ School Board)

As B.C. schools release their plans to return students to in-person classrooms next month, First Nations communities are devising their own plans they say will better keep their students and staff safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

A public statement from the First Nations Education Steering Committee says independent Indigenous schools are "exempt from the [province's] requirements to fully open and submit a planning template to the ministry," and are free to form their own educational plans according to the needs of their communities. 

Curtis Olsen, the administrator for the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board in Saanich on southern Vancouver Island, says the board voted earlier this month to keep their 300 students, from kindergarten to Grade 12, at home for the start of term. 

"There's been a rise in the number of positive tests happening in recent weeks, and the board was concerned that we're not over this yet," Olsen explained, adding that crowded living conditions in his community would spell major trouble if a COVID-19 outbreak occurred. 

Students given Chromebooks to work from home

He said the school did a community survey in March to see what electronic devices students would need to learn from home. Many students were then provided with Chromebook laptop computers in order to connect with their teachers via videoconferencing. 

Olsen said this fall will look very much the same, with students of all grades connecting to their online classrooms three times per week. High school students will be required to attend a outdoor sessions one to two days per week, where they'll visit various sites and learn how to gather food and medicines from the land. 

The W̱SÁNEĆ School Board is following a gradual return-to school transition plan that will progress as the community monitors the severity of COVID-19 in B.C. 

Port Hardy school to follow 4-week transition process

In Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island, Reed Allen, the principal of the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw School, said his 140 students from kindergarten to Grade 7 would follow a four-week transition plan to return to the classroom. 

"[We'll] start out with an orientation week for families, and then we'll [offer] half days with half the amount of kids, and then we'll slowly work up to full days with everybody," said Allen. 

"We feel like that will be the safest way to approach the situation, and allow our teachers and students an opportunity to learn new protocols."

Allen added that while the provincial government is mandated learning groups of no larger than 60 students for elementary and middle schools, his school will have classes of around 15 children, which would provide ample room for physical distancing. 

Small mainland schools still in planning stages

On the mainland, some smaller schools have just begun planning. 

Shanelle Alexander, an administrator at the 'Na Aksa Gyilak'yoo School near Terrace, in northwestern B.C., says many of the teachers haven't yet returned from their summer vacations. 

"We're just waiting ... to confirm whether or not there will be at-home learning or in-person learning," she said, noting it's already confirmed that high school students will take classes remotely. 

Alexander, also a parent of two children in the school, said around 60 students attend, and she'd feel nervous to send her children to a larger school during the pandemic. 

Eryn Geddes, principal of ʔaq̓amnik̓ Elementary School in the southeastern B.C. community of Cranbrook, said she's working on a draft plan to bring her 65 students back to class next month. 

"We're so lucky to have much smaller enrolment numbers compared to other school districts so we're able to compose learning groups of smaller sizes," she said. 

Geddes added that students will be spending more time learning outdoors.