Two First Nation high schools in northwestern Ontario will not reopen in September because of a lack of funding to mitigate the risk of transmitting COVID-19, according to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN).
Pelican Falls education centre near Sioux Lookout and Dennis Franklin Cromarty high school in Thunder Bay have pushed back their fall opening until the end of October, said NAN deputy grand chief Derek Fox.
Without additional funding and with no other resources to institute pandemic protocols, some of the 49 First Nations in NAN may cancel the entire first semester at schools in their communities, Fox said.
"It's negligence. It's discrimination," he said, of the lack of response Nishnawbe Aski Nation says it received to a $33 million funding request to address COVID-19 concerns in schools.
Fox said the proposal was submitted about two months ago, and he is disheartened that educators, parents and students are left scrambling this close to the beginning of school, especially as their peers across the province are getting support.
"I think of our little ones and of how they're not being treated the same as other students," he said. "As a leader and as a parent, it's very frustrating."
The Ontario government is spending $50 million for upgrades to ventilation systems and $18 million for online learning amid concerns over student safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Provincial school boards also have access to $500 million in reserve funds to address physical distancing and other concerns.
Meanwhile First Nations leaders and educators are forced to decide whether to open schools with the means to follow public health advice, Fox said.
During the pandemic so far, adherence to strict protocols in First Nations has helped keep the rate of COVID-19 infection among people living on reserve to about one-quarter the rate of the general Canadian population.
'How do we ensure students are both safe and happy?'
But there is a cost to all that isolation, Fox said.
"Kids are anxious to get out and about after being isolated for so long," Fox said. "We know it's good for their mental health but we have to balance that. How do we ensure students are both safe and happy? That's the big challenge."
Delays in opening schools will hamper efforts to improve student achievement after decades of federal under-funding of First Nations schools, in the shadow of the residential school system, Fox said.
About 44 per cent of First Nations people on-reserve (age 18-24) have completed high school, compared to 88 per cent for other Canadians, according to Indigenous Services Canada.
"That huge gap will just get bigger," Fox said.
Indigenous Services Canada said it is working on a response to questions from CBC News about the funding proposal from Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
Fox said he worries the response will be that individual First Nations must submit their own proposals, which he says will be a burden for school administrators and delay school openings even further.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation's proposal is separate from a plan submitted by Matawa First Nations Management for more than $25 million dollars, even though the Matawa communities are part of NAN.
Fox said Matawa's proposal includes funding for infrastructure, whereas NAN focused mainly on operational and maintenance costs such as: increased cleaning of schools and buses, flying in materials to support physical distancing and hiring additional staff for the necessary smaller class sizes.
NAN supports Matawa's proposal, Fox said.