Like many other parents in Manitoba, the thought of sending her children back to school makes Brenda Greyeyes anxious.
“I feel like it’s a gamble sending the kids back, especially with our [COVID] numbers spiking in the province. But as a parent, I really want them to have that structure and obviously the education. So I’m kind of torn,” she said.
Greyeyes is a mother of three boys and lives in Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, 70 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
This year, her two younger sons will be going into Grades 7 and 8 at Sergeant Tommy Prince School in the community, while her oldest will be going into Grade 12 in the nearby city of Selkirk.
As of Thursday, Manitoba had 247 active cases of COVID, with eight active cases in the Interlake-Eastern region, which covers the school district and Brokenhead First Nation. Of the 796 confirmed cases in Manitoba, none have been on First Nations.
This week Manitoba announced masks would be mandatory for students in Grades 4-12.
“My concern is the false sense of security [that masks provide]. If Parliament isn’t even meeting, why are our kids going into a group setting like that on a regular basis?” said Greyeyes.
Greyeyes is especially worried about sending her oldest son to attend high school in Selkirk.
“I’d love my son to finish his senior year and have a great year. But on the flip side I’m concerned as a parent because there’s 1,200 students at the [high school].”
She said he would have to ride the school bus 40 minutes each way, and would be attending the school with students who travel from many other rural communities.
In Brokenhead, Sergeant Tommy Prince School goes up to Grade 9 and has close to 140 students. It’s one of 11 schools under the Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS). Since the schools are on-reserve, they fall under federal jurisdiction.
In March, Sergeant Tommy Prince closed its doors due to the pandemic and shifted to a combination of online learning and home teaching packages which were delivered by education assistants.
Preparing for different scenarios
While most schools in Manitoba will begin classes on Sept. 8, Charles Cochrane, executive director of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre which oversees the MFNSS, said the decision to have in-person classes will lie with each individual First Nation and its leadership.
“Every aspect of education is affected by this pandemic and to address health and safety needs, there is a need for resources to do that,” said Cochrane.
He said that out of the 11 schools in the MFNSS, two of them are unsure if they will start at the same time as the province, although he declined to name them.
“We have a remote learning strategy with packages that are developed by our teaching staff for schools that have decided to not open up,” said Cochrane.
Cochrane said the MFNSS is preparing for both scenarios of having in-person classes or online learning and will be having discussions with communities on a daily basis leading up to the first day of school.
Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Chief Deborah Smith said school administrators sent a survey out to parents last week to find out what their concerns are and to help plan how this year’s schooling will take place.
“People in my community are anxious about children returning to school,” said Smith.
When the consultations are done, Smith plans on continuing discussions with the principal, administrator and parents in the community to figure out what is best for the students.
She said she welcomes the idea of mandatory masks inside the schools and said her First Nation will continue to follow the province of Manitoba’s lead when it comes to COVID-19 measures.
“There’s a cost to personal protective equipment… But First Nations don’t get any type of funding to implement their Public Health Act. And I think that that’s something else that is an issue for us,” said Smith.