Six Nations schools could be re-opening in February after federal officials and local educators introduced a variety of safety measures for staff and students in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kathleen Manderville, director of education for Six Nations’ federally-operated schools, unveiled the plan at a Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Council meeting on Tuesday morning that was live-streamed to the council’s Facebook page.
Feb. 1 is the targeted re-opening date.
Six Nations schools were shuttered in March as Covid-19 fears grew across the province resulting in numerous lockdowns and closures of all but essential businesses.
Provincially, schools were back in session this past September, while Six Nations opted to keep schools closed, with students learning from home instead.
Manderville said even if schools re-open in February, parents are free to continue with remote learning.
“There will be parental choice,” she told elected council. “Remote learning will continue even when the schools are open.”
Manderville said remote learning, “is very impactful for (students) in terms of their emotional needs.”
She said their well-being will improve when they’re back in the social environment at a school building.
Kids who have had to stay home during the pandemic have suffered a number of consequences, she said, such as increased exposure to online bullying, human trafficking, economic struggles, lack of access to adequate Internet services, and loss of exposure to language and culture.
Those increased stressors are some of the motivating factors in re-opening schools.
Educators are suggesting kids go to school in family groups or “cohorts” where students alternate in-person learning days with remote learning to reduce the number of kids in classes, allowing for physical distancing between students.
Desks will be placed further apart, plexiglass barriers will be put up, masks will be worn by both staff and students throughout the day and there will be enhanced cleaning throughout the schools.
They’re also looking to hire “Covid janitors” specifically to increase cleaning and sanitization measures in the schools, said Manderville.
“The schoools already look quite different in that there’s directional arrows everywhere,” she said.
Although schools have been closed to students and visitors, teachers have been conducting classes from school buildings since September.
Students who attend by bus will be separated into cohorts to allow for smaller groups as well, and there will be a staggered entry once they come off the bus.
Safety measures are also in place for recess, said Manderville.
Another plan is to hire extra nurses for schools and to ensure every school has three months’ worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) for students and staff.
Manderville said the decision to re-open – and stay open – will be based on direction from Six Nations Public Health and will depend on the number of Covid cases in the community.
Students and staff will return to remote learning if public heath determines it’s not safe for schools to be open anymore, she said.
I.L. Thomas Principal Reva Bomberry said their schools has put measures in place to ensure student safety.
“We are prepared to have the students back into the classroom. I’m confident we’ve done as much as we can to get to where we are today.”
But she said educators need the support of the community for students to be safe.
“Should the environment change come February, then we would reconsider, definitely. In the meantime, we’ve put measures in place for staff safety, staff wellness and student safety and student wellness. I’m confident at this time that our schools are safe for our children to return.”
Schools will provide PPE for students if needed and vaccines are not mandatory for kids to attend, council heard.
“It all comes down to individual choice,” said elected Chief Mark Hill.
Even if schools open, it will be up to parents to send their back or not.
The last survey sent out to parents showed a little over 50 per cent were in favour of schools re-opening.
Elected council sent out another survey to parents last week seeking their input on the subject, but Indigenous Services Canada, which runs Six Nations schools, will make the ultimate choice to re-open them or not, council heard.