Saskatoon

More than 20 Sask First Nations schools closed due to COVID-19 fears

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the closure of at least 20 schools on Saskatchewan First Nations, according to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations expects more closures as case counts rise

Josaiah Keesaynew, 13, enjoys a snack while working from home. His school on the Big Island Lake Cree Nation has been closed all fall due to COVID-19 concerns. (Submitted by Julie Sandfly)

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the closure of at least 20 schools on Saskatchewan First Nations, according to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.

The FSIN says it expects that number to climb in the coming days.

"Mornings are all about Zoom and Google Meet," Big Island Lake Cree Nation mother of six Julie Sandfly said with a laugh.

Sandfly said she and her husband, Joseph Keesaynew, work hard to ensure their kids don't fall behind in their education while their school is closed.

"They're actually looking forward to it opening again, and I kind of am, too. Being at home like this is not easy," said Sandfly, who is also taking adult education classes toward her high school diploma.

Julie Sandfly (grey sweater) and husband Joseph Keesaynew (blue t-shirt) say they're doing their best to help their six school-aged children to learn remotely. Their school on the Big Island Lake Cree Nation has been closed to most students all fall because of COVID-19 concerns. (Submitted by Julie Sandfly)

The closures include some of the province's largest northern First Nations. The Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation has shuttered all seven of its schools in communities throughout northeast Saskatchewan.

"It was not an easy decision, but there's a safety concern for parents and teachers and everyone," PBCN Chief Peter Beatty said.

With more than a dozen cases in PBCN communities such as Pelican Narrows, Southend and Deschambault, Beatty said they consulted with local, provincial and federal health experts, but felt they had to act quickly. They closed the schools about a week ago.

"We take advice from our education and health professionals. We don't just panic and close everything. It's with consultation," Beatty said.

Beatty said teachers and parents are trying their best to help kids learn at home, but poor Internet service and lower overall funding than provincial schools makes it difficult, he said. 

Jariah Keesaynew, 11, works on his math at the kitchen table this week. He and his five siblings are all working at home on the Big Island Lake Cree Nation because their school has been closed all fall due to COVID-19 concerns. (Submitted by Julie Sandfly)

First Nations schools are funded federally, but community leaders and the broader tribal council boards of education have authority over COVID-19 protocols.

With the exception of the outbreak several months ago in La Loche and the adjacent Clearwater River Dene Nation, infection rates among First Nations people have generally been lower than the general population. Beatty and others would like to keep it that way.

In some places like the Big Island Lake Cree Nation, officials are being even more cautious. There have been no cases in that community, but most of the students have not gone to school at all this fall.

The high school students returned briefly in October, but are back at home now that case numbers elsewhere in the region climb.

Many of the cases throughout the north have been traced to gatherings at a Prince Albert Gospel church.

Big Island Lake post secondary education and student support coordinator Timothy Biggins said teachers, students and parents are doing their best. Big Island officials supplied each family with tablet computers and offered basic computer literacy courses for the kids and adults.

But he said it's never the same as learning in person.

"Some teachers are having a difficult time communicating with the students, and they're unable to network with the kids," Biggins said.

First Nations officials across the province said some of the schools will be closed for two weeks, while others have no set date for reopening.

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