Pre-existing overcrowding, internet problems complicate First Nations' return to school

As schools across Manitoba get ready to begin classes, some northern First Nations say their community schools face ongoing challenges that make planning for schooling during the pandemic extra difficult.

Physical distancing, teacher recruitment challenges for Northern Manitoba First Nations

Kisemattawa Kiskinwahamakew Kamik School in Shamattawa. Chief Eric Redhead said this years biggest challenge will be enforcing physical distancing between students. (Submitted by Roy Miles)

As schools get set to reopen, remote First Nations in northern Manitoba grapple with getting teachers in safely, overcrowded classrooms and weak internet connections.

"Our biggest challenge is crowding. We don't have enough space for all the students in our community," said St. Theresa Point Chief Marie Wood. 

The First Nation is accessible only by plane or winter road and is located 463 kilometres north of Winnipeg. 

Wood said overcrowding has been an issue since the school was first built about 10 years ago.

"We need more classrooms. I think we are short six classrooms in the early years and six classrooms for the middle years," said Wood.

Wood added that a lot of the early years classes have upwards of 30-plus students.

St. Theresa Point chief Marie Wood said her community's biggest challenge will be addressing overcrowding in classrooms. (Submitted by St. Theresa Point council)

While schools across the province will be preparing for different scenarios like remote learning, Wood said online classes just aren't possible with the community's poor internet service. 

"Our internet service is very slow and unreliable.... If we get all of our students online at the same time, it will get slower and slower," said Wood.

While most in-school classes in Manitoba will begin on Sept. 8, Wood said the community will be "playing it by ear," and that teachers in the community are getting ready to deliver work from home packages next week.

Recruiting teachers

In Shamattawa, Chief Eric Redhead said his community has had to go the extra mile as they prepare to start classes next week.

"We always have a difficult time recruiting teachers," said Redhead.

Shamattawa is located 745 kilometres north of Winnipeg and is a fly-in community with a population of 1,800. Shamattawa's kindergarten to Grade 12 school has a student population of 500. 

Redhead said they flew this year's cohort of teachers to Winnipeg from their communities and then put them onto a chartered plane. They landed in Shamattawa on Aug. 21.

"They came from all over the country — teachers coming from Toronto, from Edmonton, from potential [COVID-19] hotspots," said Redhead.

After they landed in the community, all of the teachers were required to be tested for COVID-19 and were told to self-isolate.

While teacher recruitment has been an ongoing issue, retaining teachers is another challenge that he hopes to address.

"We're looking at raising the pay scale, adding some more benefits to the packages that we offer the teachers," said Redhead. 

"We're currently building new housing units for the teachers and we're using our own source revenue for that particular project that was not funded by [Indigenous Services Canada]."

Physical distancing a challenge

Like in St. Theresa Point, Redhead said one of the biggest challenges for this year's schooling will be physical distancing between students.

"When you look at the school system in the south, there's a combination of in-the-classroom and remote learning for high school students. That's not an option for my community," said Redhead.

He said the community has hired extra staff positions to help sanitize and disinfect the school, as well as "COVID-19 workers," employees who will help enforce physical distancing/COVID-19 precautions in the classroom.

Last week, the federal government announced $112 million for COVID-19 back-to-school preparation funding for schools on-reserve, although it has been criticized by the Assembly of First Nations who say the funding falls short of what's needed.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1