As many schools across Saskatchewan refine COVID-19 cleaning protocols and accumulate PPE for students to return to the classroom, one northern First Nation school has decided to continue online learning for at least the next month.
The Clearwater River Dene School is located near La Loche in northwest Saskatchewan, where an outbreak led to more than 300 cases between April and July. The school is attended by about 230 students between nursery school and Grade 12.
Principal Mark Klein said the chief and council for Clearwater River Dene Nation voted earlier this month to continue online learning for the month of September, after school starts on Sept. 8.
He said community leaders chose the more cautious approach from three potential plans, turning down the other options for either a full return to school or cohorting students to attend at different times.
"If you weighed the positives and negatives to going back and having kids in school or waiting another month and [doing] online learning, it just made more sense for us to wait a month to have kids back into the school," said Klein.
School developed plan to prioritize safety
Provincial schools are scheduled to reopen on Sept. 8, after the province delayed the original return to class by about a week.
The Saskatchewan government also allocated $40 million from an existing COVID-19 fund to assist schools with reopening, after its plan drew criticism from some parents and doctors, including the Saskatchewan Medical Association.
Klein said Clearwater River Dene School had developed its own plan well before the provincial plan was released on Aug. 4.
He said online learning is not "perfect," adding that the school's experience teaching students online to date has shown children are not as motivated or willing to learn from home.
But he said the decision to continue online learning temporarily prioritizes safety based on the community's experience with COVID-19.
"The spread is so quick," said Klein.
"So even if we did have school, I would be apprehensive just knowing that there could be more cases and kids could be bringing it to school.
"I guess our fear is that we'd be shutting down right away if we did have kids — we would barely get started before something were to happen."
Klein said teachers have been doing additional training in online classroom teaching, as well as learning about the effects trauma from the pandemic can have in a community.
He said teachers are dedicating 30 minutes daily to building relationships with their students, in addition to learning time.
'Overwhelming support' from school community
Klein said the decision has received "overwhelming support" from parents and children, although he does not believe it is realistic to expect consensus.
School staff and community leaders will be watching closely as other schools reopen to determine when they should do the same, he added.
While the school remains closed, a provincial school in nearby La Loche, about a 10-minute drive away, will reopen on Sept. 8.
La Loche Mayor Robert St. Pierre said he has been in communication with the Northern Lights School Division about reopening and plans to update the community on Wednesday.