On Instagram, children in Dettah learn how to wash their hands as a young student, hands full of ‘germs’ – tiny flecks of glitter – sings Happy Birthday twice while scrubbing.
Lea Lamoureux, principal of Dettah’s Kaw Tay Whee School, said: “This is the first day of ‘new school.’ That’s what we’re calling it. We’re trying to be creative.”
The school itself is closed until the end of the academic year due to Covid-19. Instead, programming has switched to a mix of daily videos, paper packages, phone calls, and photos.
Across the Northwest Territories, teachers face the extraordinary task of maintaining some form of education for students they now cannot see other than by video. Parents are the new front line of education. Zoom and Instagram are now halls of learning.
“It’s just a whole new world. I think we’ll settle on a direction… and then it’s going to totally change on us,” said Meagan Wowk, principal of K’alemi Dene School in Ndilǫ.
“It’s so unknown. Teachers in general are planners. They like to know exactly what is coming at them and get all of the bumps out of the way. That’s the biggest hurdle and the biggest stressor – we just don’t know what’s coming our way.”
The past week has, for many schools, marked the opening week of what Lamoureux calls “new school.” That means beginning delivery of programming in whatever forms a school can make work. Teachers have scrambled to master online tools they long-ago promised themselves they’d figure out. Staff have created makeshift mail facilities to get hundreds of packages out to parents.
In week one, finding their virtual feet, many schools focused on simply making sure students and their families were OK.
Kaw Tay Whee School held a “wellness week” with personal phone calls between teachers and students throughout Wednesday. Thursday involved a “spirit day” where students and staff dressed up in clothes either bearing the school logo or Frostbite, Kaw Tay Whee’s puppet and cartoon character (who already had an Instagram account of his own).
“Our biggest focus right now is maintaining connection. We have some longstanding staff who’ve worked in the community for a long time, and it’s hard to be away from the kids and families,” said Lamoureux.
“We just want our families to know we’re here to support them.”
At K’alemi Dene School, students were given different learning activities focused on wellness. “Teachers have been making lots of phone calls and seeing what will work best for families,” said Wowk.
Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin High School, similarly, had students wear their Falcons gear “just to get some spirit going,” said Dean MacInnis, the school principal.
The territory’s francophone school board spent a week calling every family “to find out how everybody was doing,” said superintendent Yvonne Careen, but also to find out if they had home internet access – which will come to define how a student experiences the next few months of their life.
Pivoting daily to get learning online
The Northwest Territories lags behind many parts of Canada when it comes to internet access, internet speed, and even access to computers.
Schools and charities are trying to get computers into students’ hands, but they are also having to invent entire online curricula on the fly and back those up with paper versions for homes without the web.
Yellowknife Catholic Schools welcomed teachers back on March 29 for two weeks of intensive prep: how to make “new school” work, digitally and physically.
“We’re right in the thick of trying to figure out how this is happening,” said Simone Gessler, the superintendent. “It’s absolutely 100-percent a learning experience. None of this is anything that we expected. We’re learning how to pivot on a daily basis.”
Yellowknife’s Mildred Hall School shared an image of teachers using a Google video app to plan how packages of materials can be safely issued to students.
Gessler said Yellowknife’s school districts are coming together to set up an online system where teachers can share ideas, lesson plans, and any other helpful resources, no matter where they work.
For teachers who years ago mastered Google Classroom or Flipgrid, an app that lets them run video-based discussions, this is their time to shine – or, at least, to work even harder at getting families on board.
For others who might have been a little slower to embrace technology, Careen said, there has been what she gently termed “some quick professional development” to understand a world of options like video tools Hangouts and Zoom, virtual classroom software such as ClassDojo, and interactive whiteboards like Jamboard.
“Some teachers already had those skills,” said Gessler. “Others are learning them very quickly.”
But the adjustment isn’t all about apps with fancy titles. There are basic digital steps that some schools are still trying to master because they simply weren’t necessary before.
At K’alemi Dene School, the community of Ndilǫ is so tight-knit that the school never previously relied on the internet for communication.
Teachers see some parents every day. To reach others, it’s much easier to send a child home with a sticker on their jacket – bearing news about important updates – than to rely on the internet.
“Of course, that’s impossible right now,” said Wowk, the principal.
That means she is having to figure out how the school approaches social media, which was never a priority.
Even emails to all parents are new.
“Last night, I emailed as many families as we had email addresses for,” said Wowk earlier in the week. “That was the first time a K’alemi Dene School principal has sent out a group email. It’s just not something we have ever really done before.”
Simple on paper?
Not that making physical learning packages work is any easier.
Schools across the NWT know very well that not all of their students can get online. Every school surveyed by Cabin Radio was devising some form of physical equivalent in the hope of providing a roughly similar experience, online or off.
But schools needed time to invent those packages – and didn’t always know how to swiftly distribute them.
Wowk said figuring out a safe way to send out all the packages was “the biggest hurdle” as her school returned to life in the past week.
At Yellowknife Catholic Schools packages must sit for 24 hours between being packed and delivered, a safeguard designed to outlast the length of time the virus is believed to remain active on paper-based materials.
Once that time had elapsed, the district found new problems.
Molly Laity, a teacher at Yellowknife’s Weledeh Catholic School. “Ms Laity getting some fresh air with the birds,” the school wrote online. A parent passed on one student’s reply: “I love you Miss Laity!”
“This morning we have already hit a few hiccups,” Gessler admitted, “just in terms of making sure we have very specific addresses when it comes to complexes with more than one building or multiple residences in them.
“And just the length of time it’s taking to deliver,” she added. “We’re going to have to go into tomorrow morning.”
Kaw Tay Whee School struck up a partnership with Yellowknife’s Book Cellar bookstore to put books in packages for each family. Those packages were due out of the door on Friday, Lamoureux said.
Every two weeks, the packages for Dettah students will include little surprises like board games, Lego sets, or craft kits.
“Our kids are super-artsy and we want to keep them occupied,” said Lamoureux. “The surprises are still connected to learning, but kind-of fun.”
An example? The school is now working on what Lamoureux called “take-home DIY lightsaber kits” for May 4, which is Star Wars Day (“may the fourth be with you”).
“That’s what happens when kids are the boss of the cool things you do,” laughed Lamoureux.
“I think that they’re looking at solutions – at overcoming these challenges – that are going to be quite unique,” said Fraser Oliver, president of the NWT Teachers’ Assocation.
“It’s not the end of the world, but I think teachers are up for the challenge and we’re going to hear some real unique stories as we move forward.”
‘I have to execute. My kids need this’
It’s not just about learning, though. Schools must work out how to feed students and support their mental health without ever coming near them.
“It was a week into March break and I was like, I need to do this,” said Sarah Murray, a social emotional learning support teacher at Yellowknife’s NJ Macpherson School.
Murray created an Instagram account where she shares daily tips for both students and parents.
Most take the form of short videos. Examples include how to make a simple schedule for your kids, “what to do when we feel worried,” and seven tips for “communicating with your child about their emotions.”
“I’m a support teacher. How am I supposed to support my students if I’m not around them?” Murray had complained to herself, out of frustration, as the pandemic closed down her school.
“I know not all of my students’ parents have Instagram,” she added by phone last week, “but lots do.”
Some of the videos have been viewed hundreds of times. A few have comments beneath them from parents facing their own challenges. Murray messages them privately with ideas and advice.
“I’ve had anxiety my whole life and learned, as I’ve gotten older, how to manage it,” Murray told Cabin Radio.
“I hope people go on Instagram, find a quick little strategy, read it, go ‘Oh, that’s simple,’ and go try that.
“I’m trying to keep everything quick so if parents want to watch them, it’s like a minute long or two minutes max. They can watch really quickly, then go try.”
Murray says the pandemic forced her to finally execute a plan she had half-heartedly been toying with for years.
She tried to create a YouTube channel last year without much success, and had opened a similar Instagram page before but subsequently closed it.
“It’s been building and building for a little while,” she said. “I had a couple years of half-written posts that I hadn’t finished.
“Sometimes I would execute things and sometimes I wouldn’t. Now I’m more of the mind that I have to. Maybe one of my kids needs this or their mom needs it right now.
“I’m trying to feel out what families need most. I can kind-of inadvertently work with children by working with their parents and helping their parents stay regulated.”
Creativity ‘is the ticket’
Not everything has run smoothly. “I wouldn’t say there haven’t been interesting conversations,” said Careen at the Commission scolaire francophone, asked if her school board and the NWT government had set differences aside.
“But they were all driven by the fact we wanted success for each student in the NWT,” she added. “Everybody had the same goal in mind. We worked around it.”
Many principals and teachers said the biggest challenge would be making distance learning work week after week, holding the attention of families and students while continuing to deliver meaningful education.
“We already have parents saying, ‘The pandemic is going on and we can’t worry about school work right now,'” said Gessler at Yellowknife Catholic Schools.
“Our priority right now is health and wellness. If you can’t get to the learning for a couple of weeks, that’s what we’re worried about right now.”
“Part of it is novelty, for sure,” said Lamoureux in Dettah. “We need to be all hands on deck thinking creatively. We can’t have an ice cream truck this year so we are trying to think of engaging ways to keep families involved and kids interested. That’s going to be the ticket.”
MacInnis, at Sir John Franklin, is already starting to wonder what the fall will look like – if, depending on pandemic health restrictions, his students are allowed back into classrooms.
“Let’s say we get to a point where we have in-person classes in September. How does that look?” he wondered aloud.
“We transition from where the kids have not been in a classroom since March 12 or 13, back to regular classes. What’s the plan? What’s that soft start going to look like?
“It’s got to look different. The kids are going to be in a different place.”
Careen thinks there will be a “renewal of energy” when both students and teachers finally make it back into classrooms.
“We’re doing things we were kind-of hesitant to take on before, and now we don’t have a choice. We have to use technology. We have to be well-versed in communication using various methods. I think it’s pushing us forward,” she said.
“Will education have evolved? Absolutely, I think, and for good reason. It will be an opening to a more diverse way of looking at how education can be delivered.”
“There are going to be some really unique lessons or connections that students and teachers and parents are making,” said Oliver. “But every teacher wants to go back to the way it was.”
Dean MacInnis, principal of Sir John Franklin High School, appeared in a video for students with fellow staff.
MacInnis, whose staff and students exchanged heartfelt videos in the weeks after the pandemic struck, said he has faith that this is ultimately going to work.
“Considering the whole situation we’re in, and how challenging it is to go from the ‘regular’ teaching to teaching from a distance, you know what? The staff are incredibly resilient,” he said.
“They’re doing everything in their power to help the kids.
“It’s going to be OK. There are going to be lots of ups and downs along the way.”
Lamoureux said: “In education, you have to be fluid and flexible. You never know what could happen. We know our kids and families, so it’s all about how you connect people with things they might like down the road.
“You might as well take it by the horns and figure something out.”
Michele Taylor contributed reporting.