How these remote communities are going back to school during COVID-19

Lagging internet. Fewer board staff. Funding disparities. In the James Bay area, schools face a specific set of challenges heading into the year
By Nick Dunne - Published on Sep 04, 2020
Moosonee Public School is governed by its own individual school board. (Facebook)

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Like many caregivers stuck inside with family this summer, Beverley Linklater has often heard shouts of “I’m bored.” And she’s likely heard more than most — Linklater and her husband live with seven grandchildren and two foster children between the ages of five and 17, all of whom will be in school this year. There have been no cases of COVID-19 in Moosonee or the James Bay area, so the kids have been able to spend some time outside with friends over the summer. But concerns of an outbreak hang over the community, and the return to school has forced families to make difficult choices.

In a house of 11, self-isolation is a challenge. And Linklater, 52, has diabetes and an autoimmune disorder. In deciding to send her grandkids back to school, she had to consider their safety as well as her own. But she thought they would be better off with friends and schoolwork to keep them occupied. “I was concerned with their mental wellness,” she says. “I've already explained to my children, my grandchildren, that when this disease comes here, it may come and take me. I never, ever thought we would have a conversation like that — ever.”

Linklater is one of thousands of parents and guardians along the James Bay coast and across northern and remote communities in Ontario who must weigh the safety concerns of returning to school against the well-being and education of their children. While most don’t have all-year road access — and many have cut off non-essential travel — reserves such as Moose Cree and municipalities including Moosonee, in the far north, remain on high alert. If the virus were to enter, it could spread fast and hard, and a combination of overcrowding and higher-than-average rates of pre-existing health problems could place these communities in jeopardy.

But a school year that emphasizes digital and distance learning will be a challenge in a region where internet access falls behind the rest of the province. Moosonee’s average download speed is around five megabits per second, while the Ontario average is 51.95 megabits per second. Multiple kids accessing online-learning tools ground Linklater’s internet to a halt. “It was frustrating,” she says. “The internet is crap, basically.” Her grandkids took turns throughout the day, alternating between morning, afternoon, and evening shifts, but keeping them on task was tough, she says, adding, “I caught a couple of them a few times playing games on their laptops.”

After shifting to online learning in March, Moose Factory Ministik School surveyed parents to see how distance education could be improved. “What we affectionately called our emergency-distance learning in the spring was very much an emergency,” says principal Jennifer Knight-Blackned. “Overwhelmingly, the response has been that full-time online learning is not something that our families are looking for.”

Linklater did find that some strategies helped her family — her grandkids were more engaged, for example, when teachers regularly checked in online or over the phone. Overall, she says, she’s been impressed with how the schools have responded to the pandemic: “I made the decision to send them to school because I have faith in the work that these teachers are doing. They're fantastic.”

Based on the feedback it received, Knight-Blackned says, her school created a blended distance-learning approach that includes the option of work packages that don’t require online access, and more emphasis on outdoor education — which she says is well-suited to local students, who get a multi-week break in April for the spring goose hunt. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education told TVO.org via email that “our plan to safely reopen schools has been informed by the best medical and scientific minds in the country,” adding,  “the leading medical advice was clear that we must allow an opportunity for our students to return to school, combined with layers of prevention to maximize health and safety. We have done exactly that.”

To accommodate a Moose Cree bylaw that currently limits gatherings to 15 people indoors, 20 outdoors, and 40 at funerals, Ministik is beginning its first month of school remotely. “I have to admit it's been one of the most challenging summers of my career in education,” says Knight-Blackned, who’s spent the past 17 years working in the community.

Ministik is the only school in the Moose Factory Island District School Area Board; Moosonee Public School and Northern Lights Secondary School have their own individual school boards, each of which has a superintendent, an administrator, and an office assistant. Having fewer board staff to liaise with the Ministry of Education means that principals need to be actively involved in back-to-school planning. “When we respond, rather than it being, say, a board-level response for us, it's a school-level response,” explains Stephen Tod, the principal at Moosonee Public School. 

As both Moose Factory Ministik School and Moosonee Public School are off-reserve, they have access to provincial COVID-19 funding. Schools on-reserve, however, are federally funded. Heather Moore, executive director at the Moose Cree Education Authority, explains that Moose Factory’s unique circumstances created a funding disparity even prior to COVID-19. “The federal school receives less money than a provincial school. So kids in Grade 6 are getting fully funded like down in Sudbury,” she says. “But they come to Grade 7 and the federally funded school, where that funding is potentially cut in half.”

On August 26, Indigenous Services Canada announced $112 million in funding for First Nations schools across Canada (that followed an earlier announcement of $82.5 million for mental-health supports in First Nations). But Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s deputy grand chief, Derek Fox, who oversees education, notes that the federal department hasn’t indicated how or when communities will be able to apply. “We don’t have time. Our students are starting school,” says Fox. “They have not been given the necessary COVID funds you see being given to the provincial school boards.”

NAN submitted a funding proposal, received by ISC on July 6, for PPE, mental-health supports, staffing, and infrastructure improvements. “Our ask was $33 million for 49 First Nations,” Fox says. “Their announcement was $112 million for 630 First Nations across Canada.”

An ISC spokesperson told TVO.org via email that future funding will be available to address the gaps: “At the core of NAN’s proposal is funding directly to communities to assist with the return to school process and that is what we’ve delivered. We recognize additional assistance may be needed and stand ready to continue to work with NAN to address gaps as the situation evolves.” But Fox says additional funds are required now: “It’s not ‘may be needed.’ It’s ‘must be needed.’”

Back on Moose Cree, Moore is grateful that funding is on its way, but she believes the announcement came too late for Mushkegowuk’s schools. “Everybody's learning as we're going through this,” she says. “But, as First Nations people, we're always waiting for the tail end of things — we should be just as equal as people in provincially funded schools.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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