Changing needs of Indigenous students top of mind as kids are back to school on Vancouver Island

‘The message that we got from [the nations] is that there’s a lot of families in this community that aren’t feeling comfortable bringing their kids back to school,’ says SD61 rep

In the wake of COVID-19, community members on Vancouver Island are focused on the evolving needs of Indigenous students — whether they are back in a classroom or learning from home.

One way to gauge educational achievement is through classroom attendance, which is a concern as some caregivers grapple with the choice to send loved ones back into schools.

Becky Wilson, from Tsawout First Nation and Cowichan First Nation, has decided not to send her four-year-old granddaughter, whom she cares for, to kindergarten this fall.

“The numbers are rising,” says Wilson, noting that she is immunocompromised — having missed a lot of school herself as a child because of being hospitalized from pneumonia three to four times a year.

For student Weslee Joe, 13, going back to school this year has been different. She says she is still getting used to this year’s different classroom environment.

Indigenous attendance amidst pandemic
Students like Weslee Joe are having to get used to wearing a mask at school, as others are choosing to learn from home. By: Catherine Lafferty

“We have to wear masks every time we come out of the classroom,” she says.

“I don’t like wearing masks but school is fun.”

Wilson says that her brother has a 14-year-old who will be going back to school and understands the need for his age group to be able to socialize in school. 

“Being with friends at that age is very important. I know they are old enough to understand the social distancing, to be more cautious.”

Carly Hunter, director of instruction – learning and innovation from the Saanich School District, says that some families are taking time to consider the learning options available to them moving forward.

“The message that we got from [the nations] is that there’s a lot of families in this community that aren’t feeling comfortable bringing their kids back to school and that we need to provide options and so we’ve heard that and that’s why we’re trying to be creative.” 

Hunter says the district doesn’t have exact enrollment statistics yet, but out of initial numbers this year, “about 90 per cent of students want to return to school, but among our Indigenous students the number is a bit lower.”

Indigenous attendance

According to stats from the federal government, Indigenous attendance rates across Canada were already low — despite a growing rate of graduation and post-secondary certification for many years — in comparison to non-Indigenous students.

This is partly why, at the very top of the indicators of successes in Saanich School District’s Education Enhancement Agreement for 2018-2023 is – you guessed it – student attendance. 

This year, COVID-19 could likely cause those attendance numbers to drop even further, as families already dealing with colonial barriers face an extra layer of stress when it comes to education.

A 2015 B.C. government report titled Aboriginal Worldviews and Perspectives in the Classroom notes: “We’ll know we are achieving success when more [Indigenous] students are wanting to be at school. … Attendance is one way to measure engagement, and engagement is a measure of success.”

However, the province’s report also notes that Canada’s former assimilationist policy of residential schooling has not only harmed those individuals who were required to attend, but has profoundly damaged communities and engendered a deep distrust of formal education among many Indigenous people.

Now that these residual impacts are combined with the risk of COVID-19 coming into communities, attendance is not an option for some. Which is why districts are increasingly making it easier and more effective for students to have a similar learning experience from the safety of home.

Relationships first

Hunter says it’s important for the district to put “relationships first, making sure the students know that the staff really care about them and that they have options.” 

“For those that don’t feel comfortable, we are reaching out to those families specifically just so that they know what their options are and that they have choices, either through remote or through both options just so that they keep those connections at school,” she says.

Hunter adds that computers and Internet access will be provided to help support students if needed. This support applies to Indigenous students through a Local Education Agreement (LEA), also called the Education Enhancement Agreement, built on the relationship the district has with the four nations in Saanich: Tsartlip, Pauquachin, Tseycum and Tsawout.

There are also outside organizations dedicated to encouraging Indigenous students to connect with one another and enjoy their education. Seventh Generation Club, for instance, provides “fun, age-appropriate and engaging opportunities to support First Nations students to make healthy choices, participate in sports and community activities and stay in school.” 

One of the ways they accomplish this is by offering students who have demonstrated excellent attendance throughout the school year with a certificate and a prize. Approximately 130 schools from across B.C. participate in the club, and nearly 8,000 students are members, according to their website.

Celebrating successes

Monique Gray-Smith, a Cree, Lakota and Scottish author and speaker, has advised school districts on Indigenous education. She says she feels hopeful about work that’s being done to support Indigenous students on Vancouver Island.

A few years ago, the Indigenous graduates in her children’s district “had increased so much that we had to find a new space [to celebrate] as many grads and their families as there were.” 

More than anything, it’s important that Indigenous students’ voices are heard in how they feel about returning back to school this fall, and what they feel they need to make a stronger commitment to their education. 

Mylynn Louie, another Indigenous student who is going back to school, says she is OK with being in the classroom.

“I think I feel good [about going] back to school,” she says.

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