What’s happening with Indigenous education programs in the Okanagan?

Indigenous education departments set plans to gradually reopen school from COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 15, Health officials announced that K-12 students will have optional in-class instruction starting on June 1.

“The Ministry of Education is working with all 60 school districts, independent school authorities, First Nations schools, teachers, school leaders, support staff, public health officials and all its education partners to co-ordinate the next steps for accommodating more students in class,” the release says. 

But individual First Nations have jurisdiction over their own schools and education programs. According to B.C.’s Education Restart Plan: “First Nations independent schools do not need to develop or submit a plan.”

So what are the various schools and education programs run by First Nations in the Okanagan doing? 

Westbank First Nation (WFN)

“Westbank First Nation cares about its community and understands the significant challenges COVID-19 has placed on its Members, residents and businesses,” it says on WFN’s website.

Westbank’s Child Development Centre reopened on May 25 along with their Community Services Building. Most students from Westbank First Nation attend local public schools which will reopen on June 1. That is also the day that WFN will be reopening their Elders Hall and Lindley Building, the WFN governance building.

The Sncewips Heritage Museum, Sensistusten House of Learning and youth and recreation centre remain closed. 

“Some of  WFN’s facilities will remain closed at this time but are under consideration for reopening at a later date if safety measures can be implemented to ensure the public and staff can follow physical distancing measures,” it says on their website.  

They are developing plans to restore cancelled programs and services.

Penticton Indian Band (PIB)

On Penticton Indian Band the Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School will not reopen this school year. 

“To maintain safety for the Penticton Indian Band community and for our school community, Outma will continue with remote learning for the remainder of the school year,” the Penticton Indian Band wrote in an update shared on Facebook

Teachers have been connecting with their students by phone to establish preferred learning methods for language arts, mathematics, and Okanagan language and culture, the update explains. 

The PIB Education Centre will also not reopen this school year.

Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) 

On OKIB, the snc’c’amala?tn Early Childhood Education Center, which is a daycare, remains closed along with the nkmaplqs i snmamayatn ikl sqilxwtet cultural immersion school says Gareth Jones of the OKIB education services department.

 “At this time, OKIB reserves and education programs are currently closed until a decision is made to re-open,” Jones wrote in an email. 

The early childhood education teachers and language instructors have moved their classrooms online. They are using Facebook pages to regularly update students and parents with stories, activities and language programs, explains Jones.

In addition, he says they are providing financial support.

“OKIB has created a COVID-19 Education Supplement to assist students and their families with the additional financial costs associated with learning at home during the pandemic,” he says.

Deciding to go back 

For students whose schools will be open next week, returning to school is optional but not required.

The BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) has released new health and safety guidelines for K-12 school settings. These guidelines include, asking that those returning to school, including all staff members, students and their parents/guardians, examine themselves daily for any symptoms of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the First Nations Education Steering Committee, a “policy and advocacy organization that represents and works on behalf of First Nations in British Columbia,” says they are working to get a better sense of schools reopening plans.  

“We are currently carrying out a second environmental scan of First Nations schools to get a better sense of their plans and what supports they need during this time, but with further resources for communities that have decided to reopen their schools before  the end of this school year,” says Thane Bonar the director of communications and policy.

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