Relief, resignation and disappointment as N.W.T. students return to online learning

There’s a mixture of emotions being expressed by students, parents and teachers as schools across the N.W.T. return to online learning this week.

Relief, resignation and disappointment as schools prepare for at least two more weeks of remote learning

Most students across the N.W.T. will be returning to school online on Monday. (CBC)

There's a mixture of relief, resignation and disappointment from students, parents and teachers, as schools across the N.W.T. return to online learning this week.

On Thursday evening, the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (OCPHO) released a public health advisory alerting N.W.T. residents that community spread of COVID-19 was evident or imminent in eight communities: Aklavik, Behchokǫ̀, Dettah, Fort Providence, Hay River, Ndilǫ, Whatì, and Yellowknife.

Dr. Kami Kandola recommended schools postpone classroom learning until Jan. 21, when the current gathering restrictions are set to end.

On Thursday and Friday, school boards sent out emails and notices on social media, advising parents their schools would be moving to online learning for at least the next two weeks. That included all schools in the eight communities identified in the public health advisory. 

All Tłı̨chǫ schools also went to remote learning, as did Ehtseo Ayha School in Délı̨nę. The Beaufort Delta Divisional Education Council said its schools would move online from Jan. 10 to 14.

Expected with rise in cases

Andrea Sluggett said she expected her children would probably go back to remote learning after the holidays, as COVID-19 cases increased last month.

"I told my kids before they left school for Christmas break: bring home your books, bring home anything you're going to need if you switch to online learning, because we don't want to go back to school to get it," she said.

Sluggett has four children in Yellowknife schools, one in Grade 10 and triplets in Grade 7. She said her oldest child, who attends Sir John Franklin High School, is worried about the activities and opportunities she's missing out on at school.

"You can tell that she's disappointed that she's not going to get the things that she wanted to get done this semester … in order to have that reflect on her records," she said.

Learning to do online learning

Samantha Stuart is a project manager with the territorial government. But since November 2020, her Yellowknife home has become her office. 

She said it's a challenge help her three children, two in Grade 1 and one in Grade 4, get through their school days at home, while she's working from home. 

That's especially true when they're all online simultaneously. Stuart has to make sure each child is set up with their own device for their online class "and preferably headphones," she said.

"Sometimes I'll have a meeting at the same time, so I can't supervise them."

Later on, she said she'll sometimes get reminders from teachers about behaviour expectations for her children online.

"No eating, cameras on, no playing with toys," she said. "You just have to take it with a grain of salt because you're doing the best you can."

She said online learning has been tough on her kids, who miss seeing their friends every day.

"I have one child on the spectrum and his support since entering Grade 1 has significantly decreased as far as speech therapy and occupational therapy goes," she said. "So not having those additional supports for him is really difficult at times."

But she recognizes the alternative is having kids back in the classroom during this latest wave of COVID-19. 

"As far as being at home and not in the schools, if we can slow the spread, that's great," she said.

Teachers relieved, but want to return to normal

Matthew Miller, president of the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association, said there was some relief from teachers last week, given that many of their students are not yet eligible to get fully vaccinated.

"There are very few professions that we have here in the territories that would see the occupancy levels in their workspace such as teachers," he said. "So when the government is saying, 'limit to 25 on a floor' and, as a teacher, you have 30 in your classroom and hundreds on the floor, I mean, it's definitely concerning," he said. 

"You're wondering, is this a safe environment? Not only for me but for the students?"

Matthew Miller, president of the NWT Teachers' Association, pictured in August 2020. 'We know that teachers want to be in-person with their students, but safety has to be the priority right now.” (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Miller said parents are frustrated by the last-minute decisions that affect their lives.

"Our teachers are parents as well, so they're at home teaching with sometimes two or three children trying to learn as well," he said.

"We know that teachers want to be in-person with their students, but safety has to be the priority right now."

'Heavy dependency' on bandwidth

Miller said the shift to online learning has left schools heavily dependent on internet bandwidth, which highlights the discrepancy in online learning between bigger centres and smaller communities in the N.W.T.

"Depending on what community you're in, bandwidth can be very expensive and it can be spotty," he said. "It wasn't unheard of for some of our schools to lose the internet [for] up to a week at a time."

He said teachers are also adapting to online learning, where activities, support and communication are done differently.

"Some of our teachers have never experienced a full year of normal teaching, just the same as some of our students, in three years, have never experienced a full year of normal school."

It's not only teachers who are adjusting to the realities of remote learning, but parents too who are figuring out how to support their children through their learning.

Stuart said she gives her children goals every day, and checks in to see what they need — a break, something to eat, a walk outside — to keep them in the right frame of mind to learn.

"[It's] realizing they have their own emotions through this and their own grief. [It's] to just go gentle."

With files from Alyssa Mosher