THUNDER BAY – Northern Ontario First Nations are warning they can't guarantee a safe return to class without additional resources to address COVID-19 safety concerns.
Some schools may not be ready to launch in-person classes at all come September, says Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox.
NAN maintains the First Nations it represents have received little to no additional funding to prepare schools for the pandemic. Its 49 communities, located in Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 territory, deliver education to nearly 9,000 elementary and secondary students.
Fox says the organization submitted a proposal for safe reopening to the federal government - which bears responsibility for First Nations education - about one month ago, requesting $33 million for precautions including personal protective equipment (PPE), enhanced cleaning, and additional staff.
Less than three weeks from the scheduled resumption of classes, they have yet to receive a response, he reports.
“We haven’t even gotten a yes or no – it’s just complete silence,” he says. “The basic needs are not even being acknowledged. There’s just been no support whatsoever for our schools to open.”
By contrast, Fox points out Ontario has freed up hundreds of millions of dollars for school boards to hire additional staff and improve ventilation, among other measures - even if much of that comes from allowing boards to access their own reserve funds.
“It’s absolute discrimination against our children,” he says. “What we’re left with now is our communities are not ready to open.”
Some schools have had to dip into core education funding to buy masks and other COVID-19 necessities, he added.
Two secondary schools, Dennis Franklin Cromarty in Thunder Bay, and Pelican Falls in Sioux Lookout, may not be ready when classes are set to begin on Sept. 8, Fox said, with both considering going online-only for the first “quadmester” in September and October.
The Deputy Grand Chief worries many students will struggle with online learning, creating an impossible choice for parents.
“What you’re left with is either sending your kids to school without any of that safety assurance, or not sending your kids to school and [having them] fall behind.”
Tbnewswatch has reached out to Indigenous Service Canada for comment.