Manitoba First Nations share what back-to-school could look like next fall

It's not likely schools on Manitoba First Nations will reopen before the fall, but a number of communities are proactively planning what back-to-school might look like in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smaller class sizes, staggered start times are some of the options being floated when schools reopen

Manitoba First Nations are actively planning on how to welcome students back to classrooms next fall, if it's safe to return. (Kevin Mulcahy/Shutterstock )

It's not likely schools on Manitoba First Nations will reopen before the fall, but a number of communities are planning what back-to-school might look like in response to COVID-19.

In Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation, 130 km northwest of Winnipeg, it won't be a simple task. 

The community has just one school building for 1,100 students — nursery to Grade 12.

"Ensuring that we have the adequate space for our children is going to be a huge undertaking," said Chief Lance Roulette, adding physical distancing will be a key factor and a potentially "gruelling task."

The First Nation's pandemic planning team and educators are working on ways to accommodate everyone, once it is safe to return. 

'Alternating children back and forth'

Roulette says if the virus' case burden in the province remains low, students could be back at school in the fall in smaller, staggered groups. 

"Something similar to a process of flex-time where, you know, we're alternating children back and forth," he said, where some grades or classes would come one day, and others another day, to ensure physical distancing.

Roulette said managing the flow of movement within the school is also part of discussions. 

"From our Grade 1s to our Grade 5s is where our huge creative thinking would need to come into play," he said. "All of us are going to have to become accustomed to new routines."

Classrooms to open for WiFi

In Peguis First Nation, 160 km north of Winnipeg, Chief Glenn Hudson echoed that any return to school will be slow and measured.

He's looking to other jurisdictions for guidance, including Quebec, where the province has opened schools for students to return on a voluntary basis.

Classrooms are marked with tape and limited to 15 students, who are required to stay two metres apart at all times.

Right now, Hudson said the community is setting up physically distanced classrooms outfitted with computers, iPads and WiFi technology — which is not yet available in the community.

The goal is to have classrooms set up in the coming weeks to help high school students, who don't have technology at home, to finish up the school year. 

"I think it's important for our higher grades to be able to do that," he said.

The Manitoba First Nations School System, which oversees 12 schools on 11 Manitoba First Nations, is meeting biweekly.

Fogging machines for sanitizing

Nora Murdoch, director of educational service, said in addition to addressing larger class sizes and physical distancing, part of planning ahead has included stocking up cleaning supplies.

"We've purchased foggers for example for our schools just to be able to sanitize all the surfaces," she said.

Murdoch said informing students about the importance of hand washing at school will also be paramount, whenever they reopen. 

To date, no First Nations in Manitoba have reported cases of COVID-19.

"We're hoping to keep it that way," Hudson said.


Jill Coubrough

Former CBC reporter

Jill Coubrough was a video journalist with CBC News based in Winnipeg. She previously worked as a reporter for CBC News in Halifax and as an associate producer for the CBC documentary series Land and Sea. She holds a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba and a degree in journalism from the University of King's College.