Pandemic drives do-over for Garden Hill First Nation students

·4 min read

A Manitoba First Nations community has made the difficult decision to have all school students repeat their grade next school year because they believe pushing them through would do far more harm than good in the long run.

Garden Hill First Nation, a fly-in community about 475 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, has approximately 1,200-grade K-12 students enrolled in the community’s elementary school and high school.

Catherine Monias, the Garden Hill First Nation education director, said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected the community, both schools have been closed to in-person learning since early March of 2020, and remote learning has been a real struggle.

“We just don’t have the Internet services out here and a lot of homes just don’t have the technology like they do in a lot of other communities,” Monias said.

“We simply do not have the resources for large-scale remote learning.”

The schools have sent homework packages to students since in-person learning was shut down, but Monias said because of strict lockdowns, even getting those packages to homes has been a challenge.

[caption id="attachment_636140" align="alignnone" width="1886"] Staff at Kistiganwacheeng Elementary School in Garden Hill First Nation pose for a picture taken in the winter of 2020, just months before both schools in the First Nations community were shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Handout[/caption]

Now with the end of the school year closing in, Monias said the only decision that would be beneficial to student’s long-term educational needs is to hold them back. All grade 1 to 12 students will start in the fall in the same grade they were in this school year, while kindergarten students will move forward to grade 1.

Many First Nations communities, like Garden Hill, have their own school division, which allows them to make local decisions for their schools like this decision to hold back students.

“For them to succeed year after year they need to have competency in literacy and numeracy skills, so we can’t just push them on to the next grade,” Monias said. “They just won’t have that competency, and that is where we see students get frustrated, and that puts them at risk to drop out once they hit high school.

“If a child is lacking competency, they are not going to do well, and it is going to have a domino effect and lead to more and more of our students dropping out. We believe we are doing the right things for the kids and for the community.”

And with all students learning and comprehending at different levels, Monias said the first thing the schools will do when students return in the fall is a full review of where all their students are at, and where they need to get to succeed and move forward.

“We call it recovery learning and it starts with a review of all the students,” Monias said. “Teachers will assess where their students are at and work to build up those skill levels, and the hope is that by next June they will have met the year’s outcomes.”

Monias added that along with educational struggles the pandemic and lockdowns have been hard on students both socially and emotionally in the remote community.

“It’s very hard for a lot of them,” she said. “It’s been traumatizing for them as we’ve been locked down. They see people in the community passing away from it, and they are really scared.”

Monias who worked for years as a teacher before moving to her current position says she now cannot wait for the day when students return to classes and to in-person learning.

“My office window faces the elementary school and every morning I would see the kids get off the bus for school and I really miss that,” she said. “I would usually go outside and spend time with them in the morning, and I spend a lot of time visiting the high school. I’m looking forward to being around the students again.”

The chief of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, says that although the approximately 115 grade 1-8 students who attend elementary school in the First Nations community approximately 60 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg aren’t in a position to be held back, they hope to start the fall with a complete review of where students are at, after spending parts of this school year learning remotely because of the pandemic.

“We will need to do a thorough review because we know there has to be an evaluation of where they are academically,” Chief Deborah Smith said. “Every child learns differently, and every child will be affected differently by what we went through in the last school year. We want to make sure we know where our kids are at and what they need moving forward so no one falls behind.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun