Leaders of the indigenous community of Shamattawa, Manitoba, made the difficult decision last November to close the only school on the reserve when a serious outbreak of COVID-19 devastated the small town in the north of the province.
Authorities hoped that classes for about 500 students at Kisemattawa Kiskinwahamakew Kamik School would only be canceled for a time. But as cases increased in the community, officials realized that children were always safer at home. Students finally returned to class for the first time last week – about 10 months without instruction, in person or remotely. Online learning was not an option, due to unreliable internet connection and the lack of computers or tablets in homes.
Chief Eric Redhead says the last reported case in the community was about two months ago. Just before the end of the classes, in November, the community of 1100 people recorded more than 300 cases; the school had to be converted into a quarantine center.
Chief Redhead said the Education Department ultimately blocked students from moving on to the next school year. “There just wasn’t enough time in class for everyone to pass. “
The community of Shamattawa, located about 745 km northwest of Winnipeg, is struggling with overcrowded housing, a water system unable to serve the entire community and inadequate internet service. Chief Redhead believes the decision to keep the students at home was the right one under the circumstances, but “you still couldn’t expect the kids to learn on their own.” And parents, in general, understood this decision, he says.
The school plans to continue with sanitary measures, such as wearing masks indoors, distancing, temperature checks and frequent disinfection efforts. But Chief Redhead warns the school could close again if there is another outbreak in the small, remote community. He is also worried about the impact of these disruptions on the academic success of students and hopes that the next federal government will prioritize the provision of a reliable Internet service for northern, rural and remote communities.
Another community in northern Manitoba has also kept some of its students at home after a COVID-19 outbreak. The army came to lend a hand and three schools were closed. Greg Halcrow, education officer for the Cree Nation of Pimicikamak, or Cross Lake, said teachers tried to send homework packages home, but students still fell behind without a link reliable internet or classroom learning.
The Manitoba Department of Education has developed a “dual curriculum” plan for the 2021-2022 school year, says Halcrow. For the first part of the year, students will repeat the program from the previous year, then move on to this year’s program.