First Nation education leaders join forces on COVID-19 school re-entry plans

Jennifer O’Brien – Special to the FNWSC

Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, First Nation education leaders have been at the forefront of strategies to keep their communities safe and healthy.

Antler River Elementary teacher and a student working through a plexiglass during one-on-one learning time. (Antler River/COTTFN Education)

Amid unprecedented, rapidly changing circumstances, education directors have been involved in big decisions that go beyond education to protect students, staff and the broader community.

And during the past eight months, some of those leaders have gathered several times as part of the First Nations with Schools Collective( FNWSC) to discuss everything from safety protocols to remote learning technologies to the social-emotional needs of students during a community shutdown. 

“When COVID first happened, it was really good, being in like-mind with people who had ideas about what shutdown looked like and what safety in education looked like,” said Felicia Huff, board of education chairperson at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.  

Members also shared important knowledge about the financial support First Nation education boards should demand from the government of Canada, said Huff. 

“I love the work the group is doing. We are working together. We’ve had a lot of our emergency needs answered by being able to talk to the other folks in the circle,” she said. “Our minds were filled with being proactive and being safe and being prepared to support the community.” 

Early on in the pandemic, the collective’s conversations focussed on community health plans and how to cancel school in a way that education would safely continue.  That led to critical discussions about how to continue providing nutrition programs and stay connected with children who need school for social and emotional support. 

Social distancing measures are just one of many safety measures being taken by First Nation schools (Majvecka/AdobeStock)

“When we decided to shut down, the biggest concern was health and safety related to COVID-19, but the second biggest concern was that we do have families who struggle. We had to keep in mind that this isn’t a holiday for all children,” said Huff. 


Some communities have found ways to maintain those vital connections by having learning support staff bring nutrition packages to households where they can also touch base with students and families. 

School re-entry looks different at each of the member communities, with the spectrum of COVID-19 era education plans running from complete online learning to full immersion back into schools with safety precautions in communities where wi-fi is not reliable. Some communities have a mix of online and in-person tactics.

Antler River Elementary students at Chippewas of the Thames are learning through paper-based assignment packages. Classes are suspended, and the students attend school individually to pick up their learning packages and have regular one-on-one meetings with their teacher. 

Wiikwemkoong Board of Education have returned to school in two cohorts. Before entering the building, all students must undergo screening and have their temperature checked. Inside they wear masks or face shields and follow strict guidelines on distancing and hand-washing. 

“Everybody is co-operating. It’s very important that everybody supports these health and safety initiatives,” said Education Director Fay Zoccole.

“We are very vulnerable here. One sweep of COVID-19 through our community could take our language speakers, our cultural keepers, our story tellers,” she added. “We’re not ready to let go of our precious elders. We need them. They are a rich part of our culture and our ways of life.” 

Teachers at Wiikwemkoong schools are encouraged to do outdoor and land-based learning as much as possible, she said.

As they worked toward approaches that made sense for each community’s different needs and circumstances, FNWSC members bounced ideas off each other and shared successes and challenges. “When communities come together to share stories — particularly in unknown situations like COVID-19 — the considerations are far more comprehensive and solutions come faster,” said Leslee White-Eye, Structural Readiness Co-ordinator for the First Nations with Schools Collective. “There is a real sense that you’re not alone in this. I’m happy the Collective can organize the time to come together and share which  result in some really practical solutions and preparedness.”

Some topics covered:

  • Arrival procedures for students
  • Access to schools & off-reserve staff during border closures
  • Financial support to manage the pandemic 
  • Continuous of nutrition programs
  • Protecting the privacy of people connecting via video from home
  • Protection of Elders living with students 
  • Lag times in receiving PPE or supply orders 
  • How to avoid layoffs
  • (watchable/AdobeStock vector image)