Connectivity issues lead to a year of disrupted learning for PFFNHS students
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
Struggles with remote learning persist as Pelican Falls First Nations High School (PFFNHS) students near the end of this pandemic-struck academic year. Director of Education for Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC), Dobi-Dawn Frenette shared, “The switch to online learning has come with a decrease in student attendance, which, of course, has led to a decrease in the number of credits earned. Learning online is almost impossible without adequate internet connectivity and a suitable learning environment.”
Frenette shared that online learning has been a challenge for PFFNHS students. Since the beginning of the school year, their 165 students have been learning online from home, in communities where broadband capacities are unrealistic. She added, “Some of our students have had to resort to working on their courses late at night when internet usage in the community is reduced and the internet is a little faster and more reliable. Not the optimal environment for learning. As you can imagine, these connectivity issues have had a significant negative impact on student learning.”
However, several students are facing bigger challenges than unstable internet connectivity, shared Frenette. She explained that lockdowns negatively impacted students’ ability to access learning materials and learning spaces, where available. Frenette added, “Many students live in overcrowded homes which makes it difficult to adhere to pandemic protocols in addition to learning. Not being able to be with and spend time with their friends has had an impact on students’ mental health.”
Frenette shared that some communities have established community classrooms where students can go to access the internet, their classes, and course material. She added, “That has been quite beneficial for those students that have access to those classrooms. Unfortunately, not all of our communities have those spaces available because there simply are no empty rooms or buildings in the community to use for this purpose.”
“I am continually amazed at our students’ ability to adapt and achieve success in online learning. They face more challenges than most students learning online and yet they persevere. They continually do the best with what they have. They are truly a resilient group of students. I really admire each of them for that resiliency,” shared Frenette.
She mentioned that students also have the option to request paper course packages, which, however, isn’t the most ideal method of delivery. Paper packages have to be prepared, flown into the communities, and distributed to students at the community level. She explained that this is a time consuming process, meaning that students relying on paper packages may often fall behind at the beginning of the course, while waiting for their packages to arrive.
Frenette shared, “PFFNHS has provided all of our students with devices for online learning. However, the distribution of these devices requires the same process as the distribution of paper packages and therefore, the same challenge.” She added, “PFFNHS staff, along with our tribal council partners, have spent many hours calling our students and their parents/guardians to discuss student progress, to offer support, and to check in to see how they are feeling. Our students enjoy being at PFFNHS and miss being there. This has resulted in some mental health challenges for some of our students on top of everything else they are dealing with.”
Frenette shared, “PFFNHS has segmented into quadmesters for this academic year. We just completed our 3rd quad, due to our compressed school calendar (longer days, that allow for our year to be done in May), we are now in our final quadmester.” She added that they plan to complete the current academic year online.
NNEC is a First Nations, band-empowered, non-profit educational organization that delivers secondary and post secondary education programs and services for First Nations people. PFFNHS is one of the four schools that have their curriculum delivery managed by NNEC. As a private, First Nations-controlled and operated school, PFFNHS offers unique and culturally relevant educational services to students from 24 First Nation communities within the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
NNEC had submitted a proposal to receive funding from the provincial government, which they did not hear a formal response to. Frenette shared that the requested funding was to enable recommendations to Ontario’s Guidelines to Re-Open Schools, minor capital renovations where needed and for implementation of pandemic plans. She added that while they did receive some funding over the academic year from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), “It’s quite unfortunate that these funds were not confirmed in advance of the school year to allow for proper planning.” Frenette shared that overcoming these challenges of virtual learning may require a significant investment from both the federal and provincial governments, into First Nations infrastructure, including housing and broadband connectivity.