'Back to school, but doing it in a safe way': 2 Sask. First Nations detail plans for fall

Back to school will be anything but status quo on two Saskatchewan First Nations, where community members have come together to form unique guidelines.

First Nations have developed plans to bring students back into the classroom amid COVID-19

Christina Johns, principal of the Chief Paskwa Education Centre, says the school is trying to be 'proactive rather than reactive' in getting students back into the classroom. (Submitted by Christina Johns)

Two Saskatchewan First Nations have revealed their guidelines for safely bringing students and staff back into the classroom come fall, amid an unpredictable pandemic. 

"This is nothing to be taken lightly. We have to do all that we can to fight this pandemic and get back to a little bit of normal," said Christina Johns, who is the principal of the Chief Paskwa Education Centre, which serves students on the Pasqua First Nation, northeast of Regina. 

"Back to school, but doing it in a safe way." 

Because education falls under band jurisdiction, Saskatchewan First Nations are working to put together their own return-to-school plans.

Johns said she's been working on a plan — along with the school's vice-principal, Pasqua's director of education and other community leaders — for months. They also surveyed teachers.

"Everybody in the building had input." 

She said support of chief and council, as well as ProMetal Industries — a First Nations-owned company that designed Plexiglas desk barriers — helped bring their vision to life. 

Under the plan, the maximum number of students per room will be 15, and there will be Plexiglas barriers for each desk and in common areas. There will also be extra portable sinks and foot-pump sanitation stations throughout the building. 

Older students will wear masks when distancing isn't possible and they're not behind a barrier or outside. Teachers and students younger than Grade 3 will be provided with face shields.

When teachers arrive in September, Johns said they'll undergo specialized training about the new protocols. 

"How do we go about teaching? Why is social distancing important? Why do we have to wear a mask? What does proper hand cleaning look like? All of those kinds of things." 

Students are expected to return to school in Pasqua First Nation in October. Under the education centre's plan, the maximum number of students per room will be 15, and there will be Plexiglas barriers for each desk and in common areas. (Submitted by Christina Johns)

Teachers will also be given time to plan for distance learning. Reduced class sizes mean students will be at the school less, so some learning will be done through assigned homework packages.

Though the rotation plan hasn't been finalized, it's expected students will alternate which days they're in class, and then make up additional class hours remotely.

Students are expected back in October. 

"We're hoping that we're proactive rather than reactive, and that we've done the best that we can to try to save lives or make sure that people don't get sick," Johns said.

"This might be our new norm for a couple of years. We're not sure how this is all going to play out because it's so new for us, so we're just hoping that everybody has a positive attitude."

Cowessess First Nation releases plan

Cowessess First Nation made its back-to-school plan public on Monday.

Chief Cadmus Delorme said it's critical that students return to the classroom at the Cowessess Community Education Centre soon and safely. 

"There is definitely a physical aspect to safety, but there's also a mental and emotional aspect," he said. "Having no peer-to-peer relationship in youth could actually work negatively in our youth."

Delorme said community members have been working on a school return plan since May, and the First Nation's COVID-19 taskforce still meets three times weekly.

Prior to launching the back-to-school framework, Cowessess community members were surveyed regarding safety concerns and personal preferences, Delorme said.

The two biggest concerns have been about implementing mask policies for the education centre and anxiety. In September, students will be invited to tour the school, along with a support adult such as a parent or guardian.

"It's getting them acclimatized again because they've been away for a long time and we want them to be prepared," said Sandy Pinay-Schindler, Cowessess First Nation's director of education.

Anxieties are heightened about the new approach to schooling, especially for community members living with the residual effects of residential schools and intergenerational trauma, Pinay-Schindler said.

The new back-to-school plan includes heightened sanitation, a cap on students in the classroom (10 per room) and designated bus plans.

Community mentorship program

It also includes a new community mentorship program that could begin as early as October. 

From artists to carpenters to beaders to the chief and council, the plan is to try and help young people foster their own talents and better understand different roles in the community. It's also about building relationships, Pinay-Schindler said.

"It takes a community or a village to raise a child, and there seemed to be a lot of overlap in opportunity to provide a holistic education for our young people."

She said a student-mentor program has been discussed for years, and now seemed like a good time to implement it, as students are asked to learn a new normal. 

Because of classroom caps, students will be on a rotation schedule for when they're physically at school.

With the mentorship, she said youth could be learning in the community when they're on their off days.

A student is shown on the Cowessess First Nation in a Learning the Land workshop in this 2017 file photo. Cowessess's back-to-school plan includes a new community mentorship program that could begin as early as October. (Nature Conservancy of Canada)

Pinay-Schindler said traditional First Nations education involved the entire community, so this feels like a return to normal rather than a departure. 

She also said physical education programming will focus more on getting outside to do cultural land-based education, since team sports could be unsafe. 

She said education officials will keep a close eye on COVID-19 numbers and remain flexible with the plan moving forward. 

"I liken it to swimming in a cold lake in northern Saskatchewan. You have to ease yourself in there and test the situation."