Beaver First Nation pulls students from mask exempted schools

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

Beaver First Nation is setting up their own school after the Fort Vermilion School Division received provincial exemption from mandatory masks in six schools in the Division despite the relatively high case numbers in the area.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw approved a plan submitted by the FVSD Aug. 20 that allows students in some schools in the La Crete and Buffalo Head Prairie areas to attend without wearing masks.

The six exempted schools include Hill Crest Community School, Sandhills Elementary School, Ridgeview Central School, La Crete Public School, Buffalo Head Prairie School, and Bluehills Community School.

Schools in the Division that still have to abide by the Province’s public health order requiring mandatory masks after Grade 4 include Spirit of the North Community School, High Level Public School, Upper Hay River School, Rocky Lane Public School, Fort Vermilion Public School, Rainbow Lake School, and the High Level Learning Store.

FVSD overlaps Mackenzie County. Mackenzie County has 264.8 cases per 100,000 people, with 65 active cases at press time, and two new deaths for a total of 12 deaths.

The county remains under a watch status, meaning the Province is speaking with local officials about the possibility of additional local measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Mackenzie County Reeve Josh Knelsen has consistently down- played the threat of the virus, making headlines far outside the county for saying in May the restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus have turned people into “gutless sheep”.

Other divisions such as the Peace River School Division, which includes small rural schools such as Nampa School, have not received an exemption from the provincial requirement to wear masks.

In an Aug. 31 Facebook live where he answered questions, FVSD Supt. Michael McMann says the school division is taking the safety of students seriously.

However, he acknowledges the range of opinions on the virus in the area.

“We’ve got every sort of parent in this jurisdiction, from those fearful this is maybe going to cost them their life tomorrow and other people who don’t believe it at all,” McMann says.

McMann says the Division’s plan, especially in Rocky Lane, is “by far more strict than any other plan in the entire province.”

“Most of the province is looking at masks but not necessarily looking at cohorts the way we are,” McMann says.

“The cohorts are very strict in that they have one teacher and potentially an EA to work with and they won’t be allowed outside that cohort. So they play with that group, they learn with that group, and then, of course, they go home on the bus as they normally do.”

Students have about an hour of scheduled playtime spread over the day that includes daily physical activity plus two 15-minute breaks at different times and areas than other cohorts.

“We really want to isolate and keep kids apart as much as possible so we can ultimately protect your kids,” McMann says.

“I do believe your kids will be safe. I do believe our staff will be safe.”

However Beaver First Nation Chief Trevor Mercredi has publicly questioned the safety of children returning to school under the plan.

In a public Facebook post Aug. 31 he asks, “What happens when one of our children become infected? Will the entire family be quarantined? The class? The teachers? The school? What will happen to our Nation? This is not to mention the FVSD to not mandate masks. This is not about education, it’s about [money]. Our children are our future and must be protected.”

Beaver First Nation has discontinued educational services at the FVSD. A band council resolution signed on Aug. 13 rescinds their agreement to educational services.

The resolution states, “The Beaver First Nation chief and council feel that the Education Tuition Agreement signed with the Fort Vermilion School Division on June 25, 2002 does not meet the needs of our students nor is accountable to the nation.”

In an Aug. 17 e-mail to McMann informing him of the decision, Chief Mercredi wrote, “Please understand that we will be looking at alternatives to educate our children in a healthy, safe environment.”

Beaver First Nation has applied for their own school number and is setting up for online learning, investing in Chromebooks, Alberta Distant learning courses, Internet access, teachers and teacher’s aids.

“We have been working on this plan with Indigenous Services Canada [ISC] and they are very supportive of our plan. ISC indicated they may use our plan as a template for other Nations that would like to offer their People a choice,” Mercredi says.

It is unclear how many parents have chosen the new school option through Beaver First Nation.

McMann has told various media outlets that small class sizes at FVSD schools this year allow for proper social distancing in classes making masks less necessary.

CBC reports class sizes in the Division’s 13 schools were below provincial averages in 2018-19, and this school year there are about 650 fewer students in classrooms out of the Division’s 3,000 total students. Of those, 250 children are learning remotely and another 400 are being home schooled, double the number of home schooled students last year.

Dr. Hinshaw told reporters at a news conference that Alberta Health will monitor for cases or outbreaks at the exempted northern schools.

FVSD has already had their first case of confirmed infection. A staff member at Fort Vermilion Public School/St. Mary’s tested positive for COVID-19 Sept. 7, and FVSD delayed the start of their in class learning since a number of other staff members considered close contacts to the positive case also have to self-isolate for 14 days. In class learning won’t resume at the school until Sept. 21.

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