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B.C. First Nation schools struggle with pandemic attendance

First Nation communities across B.C. are juggling COVID-19 concerns while trying to keep youth educated and engaged in school.

Underserved Indigenous students across British Columbia are at risk of falling through the cracks as schools and families are overwhelmed by pandemic restrictions, say teachers and community leaders.

In one community on Vancouver Island, enrolment has plummeted by 60 per cent to 80 students from the 198 students that normally attend.

“The teachers are doing the best they can in the situation, and they came up with a lot of creative solutions in our community, but there were some kids that didn’t have any WiFi,” says counsellor Samantha Etzel of the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School.

“When you talk about privilege, that is what it is. We have people living in our communities that are living in poverty.”

Glacier Media spoke with education experts, community leaders and former First Nation chiefs across the province to understand the issues they’re currently struggling with when schooling children. From challenges with technology to a lack of literacy in families, many fear students could fall behind their B.C. peers.

On top of everything, many families are coping with the anxiety that COVID-19 could run through multi-generational homes at any time.

"A lot of our kids never came back because of the Omicron virus and parents just being scared about that. As well, we've had lots of teachers (and) students sick," says Etzel. 

"It's been overwhelming for staff and students and families," she says. "Being able to navigate this new way of being, and navigating learning how to get online — all of their schedules around Zoom calls. The teachers being able to do that online was a lot of work."

Last school year, the school adopted a hybrid model, balancing in-class and remote learning. This year, they opted not to are taking things week-by-week and watching attendance closely. 

"It's scary because you know last year if we had students not coming to school, they're not up to where they're supposed to be just from being at home last year," says Etzel.

Tsawout First Nation Coun. Allan Claxton says he's concerned that the pandemic will undo progress to get more Indigenous students into higher education.

"I am always concerned that the kids will start falling behind and give up because of COVID-19," says Claxton. "Education has been on the rise in our First Nation for many years now, and it is very encouraging because we are starting to get lawyers and nurses. It's very positive. We don't want to have (a) COVID effect. We want to keep moving forward in a positive and healthy way."

Claxton says one of the biggest hurdles is keeping children engaged and disciplined to commit to online learning. 

"A lot of our parents aren't educated enough to be able to help the kids at home with their difficulties of learning. (They are) only there to support, so it is much better if we can have school in-person," he says.

Etzel agrees and believes the tribal school will soon return to a hybrid model.

"I feel like we are kind of failing them because we can't get to them to make sure they have their education. But, then again, it's not us failing them — it's COVID and the environment and everything else," she says. 

Towards the Nicola River, the Shackan Indian Band was displaced from their homes, school and land following an atmospheric river and mass flooding that wiped out sections of their community.

"As we all know, our Indigenous populations are extremely vulnerable, so sending them back into the school settings (is) risky and scary for everybody — teachers included," says Lenora Star, the Shackan Indian Band community wellness manager.

Students from both the Shackan Indian Band and the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School were given electronic devices for at-home learning, such as tablets and Chromebooks. 

Star says the community is working to ensure all children, who she calls the future leaders of their communities, are supported emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically. Keeping students motivated and engaged in school is crucial to their overall well-being and mental health.

"It's hard, and so I just hope our students have a lot of support to get through and be successful," says Star. "They don't need a failure. They don't need to have that added stress in their life of a failure at school to compound what they're feeling."