After challenges brought on by pandemic, Garden Hill First Nation students will repeat grade next school year

After a difficult year with schools shuttered, officials in Garden Hill First Nation, a fly-in community 475 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, have made the difficult decision to hold students back a year.  

'There was not enough curriculum content covered [this year],' education director says

Garden Hill First Nation High is shown in this file photo. Officials in the community have decided to have students repeat a year, after the challenges of delivering instruction during the pandemic. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)

After a difficult year for delivering education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in a First Nation in Manitoba have made the difficult decision to have their students repeat a grade in the coming school year.

Garden Hill First Nation, a fly-in community about 475 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, tried remote learning, delivering lesson plans to students.

For many, it wasn't enough, says the First Nation's education director.

"There was not enough curriculum content covered [this year], so we are going to have the students remain in the same grade from Grade 1 to 12," said Catherine Monias.

Monias says the province has no-fail policy for students in kindergarten, so they are the only class that won't have to repeat a grade next September. They'll move on to Grade 1.

"So next September, we will have eight classrooms of Grade 1, five classrooms of Grade 2 — we're bursting at the seams."

There are two schools in the community — one for nursery to Grade 5 students, and one for grades 6 to 12. Together, their enrolment is more than 1,200 students.

In Garden Hill, the decision to close those schools was part of the community's COVID-19 relief effort. The schools ended up being used as an isolation centre, and have been inaccessible to the community since March 2020. 

Repeating grade best option: education director

Monias — an educator who is also raising three of her own grandchildren after the death of her son — says she's upset her children are being held back, but she recognizes it's the best option. 

"We want our students to compete with the rest of the province — they have to have the skills to do so," she said.

Safety has been top of mind throughout the pandemic, but Monias says the future of the community's economy needs to be considered. 

"We always say children are … our future. And if they don't go to school, what kind of future are [they] going to have?"

Schools in Manitoba First Nations follow provincial curriculum, but their funding comes from the federal government. Many communities, like Garden Hill, have their own school division, which allows them to make local decisions for their schools.

Monias says for the most part, parents in the community are supportive of the decision to hold back students. 

"I will say we fully support the decisions that are being made at the local level," said Charles Cochrane, the executive director of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre — an agency created by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to ensure that education in First Nations meets provincial standards. 

"We want to make sure, too, that all the children in those communities … and all the people that are involved, such as school staff and community member parents, are safe," he said.

If a community chooses to establish measures to protect health and safety, "whatever they need to do, we're certainly behind that," said Cochrane.

Recovery learning 

While Garden Hill has decided to hold students back a year, many other First Nations in Manitoba are working with the resource centre to ramp up lessons, to ensure kids can get caught up. 

Cochrane says they've been looking at "recovery learning" for students to make up for what they might have missed out on this year, and "whether it could amount to a year's worth of learning, and certainly trying to address that through strategies of recovery learning."

"The federal government needs to provide more resourcing to address recovery learning, if it means being able to provide resources to hire additional teaching staff to support recovery learning."

When contacted by CBC for comment, a spokesperson for the provincial education department said they did not know Garden Hill First Nation was having students repeat a year. 

The spokesperson did note that even though the province doesn't have jurisdiction over First Nations schools, it has a partnership with the Manitoba First Nation Education Resource Centre.

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada says that federal department is looking into the matter.