Schools resort to phone and fax machine to restart classes in northern Ontario First Nations

August 27, 2020
Schools resort to phone and fax machine to restart classes in northern Ontario First Nations

High school students in some remote First Nations in northwestern Ontario will talk to their teacher on a landline and get their lessons through a fax machine next month in an effort to keep their learning on track and keep them safe during the pandemic.

It’s one of the ways Matawa Education and Care Centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., has had to adapt to serve its students in fly-in communities that lack reliable Internet access.

It’s not clear how far the $112 million dollars in federal funding announced for First Nations education during the pandemic will go toward addressing those needs.

“We acknowledge the support, but we are discouraged that [Wednesday’s] announcement doesn’t provide details on specific resources, timelines, how to access the funding or how it will be allocated,” said deputy grand chief Derek Fox, of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, representing 49 First Nations in northern Ontario.

“We are concerned that proposal-based funding will cause significant delays, and we call on the government to respect community needs,” Fox said in a news release.

Matawa Education and Care Centre will open on Sept. 3 with a mix of in-person, online and remote learning options for its roster of about 130 students, said principal Brad Battiston.

“We accommodate wherever we can in the best ways we can,” he said, adding that Matawa was designed as an alternative school so that they could be flexible in their approach to students from the nine First Nations they serve.

Principal Brad Battiston addresses First Nations youth at the Matawa Education Centre in May 2019. He said Matawa will open on Sept. 3 this year with a mix of in-person, online and remote learning options for its roster of about 130 students. (Adam van der Zwan/CBC)

Still, no one anticipated the flexibility the pandemic has required and First Nations students are doubly challenged by the long-standing infrastructure gaps in their communities.

There are few high schools on reserves in Ontario’s remote north and in ordinary times that meant students had to leave their homes to fly into Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout, Ont., to receive their secondary schooling. Most stay in boarding homes or student residences. Not this year.

Matawa had hoped to have its new student residence open this fall, but the pandemic has pushed that back.

‘What would we do if there was an outbreak?’

Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC), which serves 24 remote First Nations is opening with distance learning only on Sept. 8. Its residence at Pelican Falls school near Sioux Lookout remains closed.

The pandemic presents a logistical nightmare for students who would normally stay with host families while attending NNEC’s Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay.

“What would we do if there was a [COVID-19] outbreak at school and the student wasn’t welcome back into their boarding home?” said NNEC education director Dobi-Dawn Frenette.

She also noted that if there was an outbreak, they wouldn’t be able to send students home because the First Nation community is so vulnerable to COVID-19. 

Frenette said NNEC could need as much $5.5 to $7.5 million to fully implement a blend of remote and in-class learning this school year. The total budget will depend on how many of the 24 First Nations are able to find space and support staff to create local classrooms on reserve.

Little space for studies

Matawa is also looking for classroom space in the First Nations it serves, but it’s not easy when elementary schools are already overcrowded and any spare space in community halls or administration offices is being used to isolate people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

“It would be great to have a dedicated education space, but in many communities that space simply doesn’t exist,” Battiston said.

Both organizations have found the funding to buy laptops for their students.

Frenette said to meet its curriculum requirements, 75 per cent of its learning must be delivered live, something that may be impossible in First Nations with limited bandwidth. 

“We’re exploring all options,” she said. “Recording lessons and sending USBs to students, getting a YouTube channel because apparently it takes less bandwidth.”

Then there’s the on-going cost of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and students who may be meeting in makeshift classrooms on reserve, or at the Matawa school.

Battiston said the federal and provincial governments have allowed the school to dip into money that wasn’t used for classroom delivery in the spring to pay for PPE, but that’s not a sustainable approach.

“Moving forward we’ll need identified pathways to funding,” he said, rather than operating in crisis mode now that it’s clear the pandemic is not a short-term problem.

NNEC is working out the logistics and the flow of funding with hopes of opening their schools to in-person learning starting at the end of October, Frenette said.

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