Thunder Bay

First Nations create pandemic 'education bubble' in Sioux Lookout, Ont.

Two remote First Nations in northwestern Ontario, without high schools of their own, are attempting to pandemic-proof their students' dreams of educational success.

'We want them to have as normal a high school experience as possible,' Mathew Hoppe says

The Home Away from Home Community Student Dwelling opened in Sioux Lookout, Ont., last year and will become an 'education bubble' for students from two remote First Nations during the pandemic. (Submitted by Patrick Keating)

Two remote First Nations in northwestern Ontario, without high schools of their own, are attempting to pandemic-proof their students' dreams of educational success.

Some First Nations in the region are delaying the start of school and two First Nations-run high schools serving students from the area are postponing in-person learning until the end of October. The Nishnawbe Aski Nation said educators are scrambling because the federal government has not made any additional funding available to address the health risks of COVID-19 in the classroom.

But the Independent First Nations Alliance (IFNA) said it has a plan that will allow dozens of students to continue their education in provincially-run high schools.

"We wanted them to have as normal a high school experience as possible," said Mathew Hoppe, the chief executive officer at IFNA.

About 45 students from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Muskrat Dam First Nations are set to begin school on Sept. 8. The majority of them will attend Sioux North High School in Sioux Lookout, Ont. and live in the supportive housing units IFNA built especially for students. The Home Away From Home Community Student Dwelling opened last year.

"We have wrap-around services for the kids in residence, it's a loving, supportive environment," Hoppe said, adding the support led to last year's group collectively passing 83 of the 84 courses in which they were enrolled. "They did awesome work."

The support services are funded through the Nishnawbe Aski Nation's suicide prevention program.

Students will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before moving into their home away from home and special cleaning measures will be taken to protect them from catching the virus, Hoppe said.

In the event a COVID-19 outbreak closes Sioux North high school, Hoppe said the students will stay in Sioux Lookout and arrangements will be made to bring teachers to them.

"We'll maintain a bubble," he said. "Not to replace school but to support students who deal with a lot of challenges to their learning up north."

'Safe place to learn'

Hoppe said many students struggled with online learning when schools were forced to close last spring because of the pandemic.

Chiefs and councils should be applauded for their  "pro-active planning" so that students have other options this fall, he said.

Eight students from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Muskrat Dam who opted to come to Thunder Bay for school will be staying with family members in the city, Hoppe said, and will have to consider other options if the school they attend is forced to close.

"We really want to give the kids the opportunity to have a safe place to learn," he said.

Matawa Education and Care Centre in Thunder Bay posted on social media on Tuesday that it's open for registration next week. The centre serves high school students from nine First Nations in another part of the region.

No one from Matawa was available to speak with CBC News about their plans for the new school year. 

now