N.W.T. to be 'flexible' for home-based education in wake of COVID-19, says minister

The territory's Education Department has released details of what home-based education will look like, a plan the minister responsible says will vary across communities, schools, and individual students.

Department of Education releases plan for educating students remotely

Education Minister R.J. Simpson says that the individual limitations of students, parents, and communities were kept in mind when developing plans for education after schools across the territory were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Students in the Northwest Territories will get final grades, but can expect far fewer hours of schooling each week as the territory grapples with educating students remotely after shuttering schools due to health risks posed by COVID-19.

On Monday, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment released details about grading students and continuing education at home, now that schools across the territory have been closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year.

What learning will look like will vary across communities and schools, and will depend on the quality of the internet, students' access to it, and the location of teachers, reads an N.W.T. Education Bulletin. It says some schools might be able to rely on internet-based learning, while others may have to arrange for the mail-out or pickup of paper handouts.

"I think that the big thing is that we need to be flexible," said Education Minister R.J. Simpson on CBC's The Trailbreaker Tuesday morning. "That's what these guidelines are, is they talk about the fact that this is not an ideal situation. And each community is different."

Simpson said that teachers are currently in the process of reaching out to students and parents to find out what is needed, from school supplies to other programming. They will then work to put together a plan to deliver that in their communities.

The department says every Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12 student will get final grades and report cards.

I know it's difficult for parents who are working.- R. J. Simpson, N.W.T. education minister

The bulletin warns that internet capacity in the N.W.T. is limited, especially in small communities, and that there are concerns about what a large increase in internet usage could mean for families, businesses and essential services.

With these limitations in mind, it says teachers will be asked to "consider what is possible for students to accomplish at home." For JK to Grade 9 students, this will mean a focus on literacy, numeracy, and health and wellness education.

Teachers in JK to Grade 9 will recommend ideas or opportunities for students to learn for an average of three to seven hours a week, depending on their grade level, according to the bulletin.

They've also been asked to prepare materials to get into the home, whether through e-learning or paper packages, Simpson said.

A playground in Colville Lake, N.W.T., photographed on Jan. 23. The Department of Education, Culture and Employment has released details about grading students and continuing education at home for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year. (John Last/CBC)

The bulletin also states that all JK to Grade 9 students will be promoted or retained based on the usual assessment by their teachers, in collaboration with parents.

"[Parents are] the first teacher of the children, and they're going to be taking that role over again in a lot of ways," said Simpson. 

"I know it's difficult for parents who are working ... there's not a lot of opportunity to actually sit down with children and teach them. But these guidelines are flexible."

Staff will 'make every effort' for Grades 10-12

The bulletin says students in Grades 10 to 12 "will need to dedicate an average of three hours of work per course per week" and work with teachers, parents and others.

It says school staff will "make every effort" to help Grades 10 to 12 students finish their core subjects and award credits. In situations where students can't finish their courses, schools can give students "alternate assignments or projects" so they can complete their courses and receive credits.

Grade 12 students who aren't able to meet certain graduation requirements, such as the completion of a non-core course, may be able to request a course waiver.

Cancelled exams

The bulletin says all Grade 6 and 9 Alberta Achievement Tests for May and June 2020 are cancelled.

Grade 12 diploma exams for April and June are also cancelled. Students who were supposed to write these exams will get automatic exemptions and their school-awarded mark will be their final course mark.

"I don't want this pandemic to punish them because of the fact that they're in Grade 12," said Simpson, noting that this discussion has been taken up on a national level by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, where he is currently serving as chair.

"One of the things that we've been discussing is how do we work with post-secondary institutions to ensure that students in Grade 12 who want to go to post-secondary aren't being punished by what's going on right now."

Community may be called on to assist

Parents and the community at large may be called on to assist with students' education, reads the department's bulletin.

For example, local radio stations may be asked to "share lessons through story," and Indigenous governments and hamlet offices may also be asked to help as well.

The bulletin also encourages land-based learning and the sharing of skills such as setting snares, chopping wood, setting cooking fires, and the handing down of traditional knowledge. It says students may be able to apply for credit based on their experience and time on the land.

The bulletin says sudden changes in schooling may be especially difficult for children with complex needs, and that parents may want to focus on passing on life skills, such as cooking or household chores.

"This is all important learning, so parents should embrace what they can and take it one step at a time," reads the bulletin. 

Teachers may also see their jobs change to "support other efforts to fight the spread of the virus," says the bulletin. They may, for example, be called on to provide child care or help with meal programs.

Teachers will be asked to check in with students regularly by phone or email.

Simpson said that anyone with questions about their specific situation should speak to their educators first, and then to their district education authority.

With files from Loren McGinnis