Rural Wood Buffalo communities say they're prepared for online learning

·3 min read

Indigenous communities in Wood Buffalo say they've been preparing for school shutdowns and they are ready to have an influx of students learning from home.

Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation, said he's relieved three of his kids won't be travelling to school in Fort McMurray anymore.

Internet in rural Wood Buffalo can be limited, but Quintal said the nation is providing students with laptops or Wi-Fi if needed.

"We've done everything we can to make sure that going virtual is a reality in our household," he said.

Fort McMurray has significantly more cases of COVID-19 than Fort McKay. Quintal said there have been just eight cases of COVID-19 in the community over the course of the pandemic. Fort McMurray has had almost 700.

"You're constantly having to worry and have that anxiety," Quintal said.

The community has used a security gate, temperature checks and COVID-19 testing at the health centre.

"When it comes to your kids, protection is paramount," said Quintal. "We will take every precaution."

The Northland School Division will see an additional 90 students start at-home learning as a result of the provincial government's new COVID-19 regulations.

Nearly 630 students in rural Wood Buffalo will be learning from home and 1,291 will stay in class.

Nancy Spencer-Poitras, superintendent of the Northland School Division, said about 40 per cent of the students in rural Wood Buffalo don't have access to the internet, and that an internet connection isn't always reliable for the other 60 per cent.

So teachers have got creative — sending kids lessons on memory sticks or sending students homework packages. In some cases, where necessary, the school has provided students with Chromebooks as well.

Spencer-Poitras said the district has the benefit of being smaller, meaning schools have been able to be flexible in response to the pandemic.

Throughout the school year, more students have returned to class as parents become more comfortable.

"We've been very fortunate with our communities being as diligent as they are that we have not had a lot of cases," she said.

She said the numbers of students in class are always in flux, depending on how many cases the community has.

"You might go from 100 kids being in the school down to 20," Spencer-Poitras said.

"Our job is to ensure that programming continues for our students at all times."

She said the Christmas break is welcome for the teaching staff though, because they are getting fatigued.

"We don't have a lot of substitutes to begin with," said Spencer-Poitras.

Calvin Waquan of Fort Chipewyan has a seven-year-old son in Grade 1. For the majority of the school year, his son is in class, but it fluctuates depending on community COVID-19 cases.

"We're so remote that it's not really a big, big problem up here," Waquan said.

But the class size isn't what it used to be.

"My boy comes home and he tells us there's three kids in class," Waquan said. "Not as much as there normally would be."

When he does his schooling from home, he gets booklets from the teacher that he can finish at his own pace.

Janet Richards had been frustrated with her son's school in Conklin, but she said she's seen improvement this year.

"I did send Levi to school [in person] this year because he really, really wanted to go," Richards said.

She said there isn't much for him to do in Conklin, and she's a single mom, working a full-time job. Levi wanted to go to school, and it made sense for the family.

Richards caught COVID-19, and now she and her family are isolating at home.

Levi's teacher has sent him work packages and called to check-in.

Richards said because her son is happy at school, she will likely be sending him back in December when the isolation is over.