Premier Francois Legault announced recently that schools will gradually re-open in Quebec, but Kahnawake has other plans.
All schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year, as stipulated by the Kahnawake COVID-19 Pandemic Task Force.
The local Task Force has the mandate to address the pandemic on behalf of the community and consists of designated health and safety representatives from Kahnawake’s service organizations.
“I’m very confident we made a good decision in terms of not opening up our doors for children to come back to school,” Robin Delaronde, director of education said in a daily briefing.
Delaronde explained the decision to not to re-open schools is to ensure they are making decisions aligned with medical recommendations and that re-opening is done in accordance with solid judgement and planning to ensure safety of the community.
“We really want to make sure we have the proper planning and measures and not to be rushed,” she said. “We really want to take this time to really plan and prepare both our school systems and educators for possibilities that are forthcoming.”
Delaronde explained they are taking this time to assess all possibilities and preparing for what the fall will look like for the Kahnawake education system. They are even exploring possibilities of continuing online learning or blended learning, depending on what the situation is in the fall.
Delaronde also mentioned how they have approximately 87 students who are affected by Legault’s decision because they go to elementary school outside the community. She stated that these students will be contacted and they will offer any support the students may need.
Teachers, parents content with Task Force decision
The province’s decision to open elementary schools and daycares in May has been met with criticism from parents and teachers. Families in the community were worried what this would mean, but were happy to see that Kahnawake would not be opening up their schools.
“I agree with Kahnawake Education Center,” Kahentiióstha Cross said. “I think what they are doing is good. I don’t think anyone should be going back to school yet.”
Cross has an eight-year-old son who attends Kateri School and a 10-year-old stepdaughter who attends Karihwanó:ron.
“I think it’s too soon to be sending children back to school and daycares,” Cross said. “They’re not guinea pigs.”
Katsi Little-Bear, a teacher at Kateri School, also supports the closure of schools for the remainder of the school year.
“I am so relieved that Kahnawake Education Center has the jurisdiction to make decisions for our community,” Little Bear said. “It shows that our community isn’t taking any chances and that we are thinking about the bigger picture.”
Little-Bear, who has a four-year-old daughter, thinks Quebec’s decision to re-open elementary and daycares next month is putting many at risk.
“Quebec has and continues to see an increase in positive cases each day. That means it isn’t controlled,” she said. “Many can be asymptomatic or carriers of the virus. Having people go back early will risk exposure to the virus and we will begin to see a dramatic increase in the number of positive cases.”
Krystle McComber-Kane, also an elementary school teacher at Kateri School, agrees.
“We have many community members and elders working within our school system. I think they have made the right decision to remain closed for the well-being of our community as a whole, not just a school,” Kane said.
Kane, who has a six-year-old son who attends Karonhianónhnha School, has been teaching virtually for the last four weeks with her Grade 5 and 6 students, three times a week.
“As a mother, I can’t believe someone would recommend sending all our children back to society and simply hope nothing will happen,” she said. “I would not feel comfortable sending my child back to school to be the government’s guinea pig.”
According to Education minister Jean-Francois Roberge, the decision to gradually re-open schools was recommended by the Association des pediatres du Quebec.
Roberge said the opening of schools would help children’s mental health, children’s access to food and would allow for special needs children to be followed closely by their teachers.
Another reason is because the risk of younger children developing complications from COVID-19 is very low, according to Legault.
Both Kane and Little-Bear emphasized the importance of taking advantage of the resources parents have to teach their kids, and say kids can even learn life skills that aren’t taught in school.
“School isn’t just restricted to a classroom setting, go out and utilize your resources,” Kane said. “Everything has a lesson to be learned. For example, gardening and cooking is full of math, science and vocabulary. Have your kids write in a journal of what they are learning or how the day went. Read it to someone on FaceTime. Read books together, make predictions, summarize, or make connections to story. Parents will be teaching without even realizing it.”
“Kids are resilient and adapt very easily,” Little-Bear added, “If parents have access to the Internet, there are many sites and programs online for students that teachers can recommend or have suggested.”
Patricia Kahentanoron Gabriel, who is 39 weeks pregnant with her third child, was worried about what would happen in Kanehsatake, until they, too, said students will be staying home.
“I will be keeping both my kids home. I don’t want to risk compromising my newborn,” Gabriel said. “I also have a daughter who, although all her tests came back good and has no immune deficiency as doctors once suspected, she does catch viruses and common colds very easily. Doctors said she will eventually grow out of it and her immune system will get stronger.”
Gabriel has a five-year-old daughter who attends Rotiwennakehte School and a 22-month-old son who attends Tsi Rontswatahkwha Early Childhood Center.
“We also have teachers who come from outside the community where there are a larger number of cases,” she said. “My daughter’s teachers are elderly and I wouldn’t want to expose them to greater risks as they are more vulnerable. I think the re-opening so soon still has too many unknowns,” she added.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we have and what the school has provided us, that I’m not worried they’ll be missing out,” she said.
Teacher at Ratihén:te High School Kimberly Simon in Kanehsatake also plans not to send her two year-old daughter to daycare if they open up.
“I understand the whole perspective of opening up elementary schools and daycares to begin the process of kids building immunity, but I’m afraid it could be detrimental in a small community like ours,” Simon said. “Many of our teachers come from outside of the community and live in high-risk areas and could potentially carry the virus into our community.”
Simon, who also has a two-month-old baby, thinks that although children might not be severely affected if they contract the virus, they could become carriers and spread it within their families.
“If they believe keeping young children two metres apart at all times is possible, they have clearly not thought this through,” Simon said. “The reality is that if elementary schools are opened and the virus is present, all students and teachers will be at risk of contracting the virus and spreading it.”
Part of Quebec’s plan to re-open elementary schools and daycares is to still implement safety measures such as the two-metre distancing rule.
Classes will be limited to a maximum of 15 students and students who have health conditions that could put them at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19 are not to return to school, Roberge said.
The minister is also recommending that teachers over the age of 60 remain at home, saying they will be able to work remotely.
High schools, CEGEPS and universities in the province will not re-open until September.
“Quebec is moving too quickly”
During the daily briefing, commissioner of Public Safety Lloyd Phillips on the Task Force said they think Quebec is moving too fast by choosing to re-open elementary schools and daycares in May.
“What Quebec is doing, we believe, is moving much too quickly,” Phillips said. “The science does not back up what they are doing.”
Phillips went on to explain that when the pandemic first started before safety measures were put in place, for every one person that got infected they infected on average five people. After safety measures were put in place, that number dropped to 1.1, meaning one person still infects just over one person.
According to Phillips, that still isn’t under control. He says the infection rate should be less than one so if one person is infected, it doesn’t automatically mean they will infect someone else.
“Nobody is opposed to re-opening the economy or businesses,” Phillips said. “But we have to do it very calculated and based on science and making sure we are doing it in the best interest of our community, regardless of what the province is doing. We have to make sure Kahnawake is safe, first and foremost.”
Quebec has been hardest-hit by COVID-19 in Canada, with 36,150 confirmed cases and 2,725 who have died from the virus as of Friday, May 8.
“Our community is more vulnerable,” Phillips added. “Our population is different, our concerns are different from Chateauguay and our neighbours so we have to be more calculated and more careful on how we are going to go about doing things in Kahnawake.”
While the Task Force does not have a confirmed date for when the economy will slowly re-open, Phillips stressed that the Task Force is in the process of developing a plan and exploring all options.
“We don’t take this lightly,” Phillips said. “We see a path forward but if we don’t take that path in a proper way, all the hard work and all financial resources and sacrifices the community did, we could be throwing it out the window.”
“I’m asking the community to be strong for a little while longer,” he said.