By Breanne Massey
Special to the Pioneer
Supporting students at the best of times comes with a mixture of positive outcomes and unique challenges.
But to offer emotional and educational support to First Nations students during a pandemic has been riddled with obstacles to overcome.
Kalyn Adams, Shuswap Indian Band’s (SIB) education, training and employment manager, has been tasked with providing support to band members who are in preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, high school, adult upgrading programs, post-secondary school and trades-school students.
“It’s pretty incredible and pretty amazing how many graduates we’ve had from the (SIB) in the last two years considering how small our band is in BC,” Adams told the Pioneer.
“Over the last two years, there’s been about 200.”
But the success stories aren’t the total sum of the equation for all SIB community members.
“I think the biggest challenge, or barrier, is the fact that a lot of on-reserve community members don’t have access to the internet or a computer like a lot of non-Aboriginal students typically do,” she explained, while citing several cases throughout North America who are facing similar challenges in their communities.
“It’s not the norm like it may be for other families, so as an example, we have one student who just got connected two weeks ago, and they’re really behind in school now … not only that, but some of our students are very disconnected from reality and don’t necessarily know what’s going on out there.”
She voiced concern for families who may be experiencing domestic violence and for those who are stuck at home without someone to talk to about their social and emotional well-being during the pandemic.
“There’s a bit of a communication breakdown of the importance of being connected as a youth,” said Adams. “I think a lot of parents aren’t factoring in the holistic perspective of how the pandemic is affecting the youth, but that’s just an assumption on my part.”
But School District 6 (SD6) has been pitching in to help students where possible.
“We have been supporting students with technology since the suspension of in-class instruction; we have loaned out more than 400 laptop computers to students to assist them,” Paul Carriere told the Pioneer via e-mail on Friday, May 15.
As a preventative measure, the SIB has been taking steps to provide support to families in multiple ways.
The SIB and SD6 have been in close contact and have worked together to distribute activity kits to students with workbooks, worksheets and crafts to help with the overall well-being of children during the pandemic, according to Adams.
“Our staff have been doing amazing work looking after the needs of students as we have been in this phase of the pandemic,” Carriere wrote. “We all care deeply about our students and have been staying connected and supportive throughout this time.”
In addition, there’s a virtual tutor available through the Education Team on behalf of SIB who can meet with students via Zoom in the event that some students require help with their homework.
“Some of the band members who are parents don’t have their highschool education so they can’t help with homework,” Adams explained.
In the past, the SIB has offered access to a tutor for adult students who needed a hand with their homework.
“Right now, the adult learners are taking a bit of a break so it’s a good time for her to pivot and support younger kids,” Adams said, noting that SIB members could contact her if they would like to have access to a tutor via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Adams voiced some uncertainty about how effective this approach might be and wondered if isolated students might be afraid to talk to a tutor who is essentially a stranger, while coping with other stresses at this time.
SD6 has been offering help to students on a case-by-case basis for those who need support.
“Regarding Kalyn’s concern, we have invited students who would benefit from being at school during this time, to come on part-time schedules for support,” Carriere wrote the Pioneer via e-mail.
“We have approximately 150 students in the district who are the children of essential services workers or who have unique circumstances attending school at the moment. These arrangements are made with school principals.”
In addition, some parents are working without access to childcare during the pandemic, which has added further complexity to these trying times.
“The other big obstacle is childcare,” she explained, “parents still have to work, and may still have littles ones at home, while they’re trying to teach their kids high school. My opinion is that the school district is doing a great job with the short amount of time it has had to offer curriculum to students online, but at the same time, the expectations being put on parents are unreasonable, especially for parents who maybe don’t have the education to support their kids.”
But ultimately she expressed gratitude for the support of SD6 during the pandemic in facilitating content for students.
“We’re in close communication with the school district. Some of it’s students that we are worried about from the social-emotional side more than educational needs so they can go into the school maybe once or twice a week. I’m leaning on the school district to make those decisions.”
The SIB has been collaborating with SD6 to create crafts, workbooks, worksheets and contests to help students stay sane with their families, while social distancing efforts are being heavily encouraged to all SIB members of all ages.
“One thing that Chief Barb Cote is very vocal about is that we’re all inclusive, so if you’re a band member it doesn’t matter if you’re on reserve or off-reserve,” Adams said, while explaining she delivers content to students directly.
“We have band members who live in Edgewater, and they do come this way for school, and we have another one in Canal Flats.”
Post-secondary students from SIB
SIB has continued to provide living allowances for two students who recently graduated from university because their support systems are limited at the best of times.
“They’re pretty impacted too because some (post-secondary students) were told to leave their school, and some don’t really have anywhere to go because they live pay-cheque to pay-cheque,” Adams said. “Students are typically hands to mouth.”
On top of the financial concerns that 12 SIB post-secondary students are facing, Adams added, there may be some prejudice that they’re dealing with as well.
Ultimately, she was relieved the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) would be available for student support going forward.
The Federal Government of Canada provided the SIB with funding to help support education efforts among its band members, but there are still a lot of unknown factors for the community in accessing hardware, supports for learning materials and programming for social and emotional well-being.
“That’s been the big question the whole time. Longevity,” Adams stated. “ How long the money will be available to support the community during the pandemic.”