Melania Chikobvu is a Special Education Teacher in Sandy Lake First Nation and an alumnus of Teach For Canada. She completed her two-year commitment in Sandy Lake from 2018 to 2020 and continues to teach in the North.
Since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, life in Sandy Lake First Nation has changed. Like many communities around Canada, the 2020 March Break was extended indefinitely. In our community, Chief Delores Kakegamic and her team worked tirelessly to put measures in place to curb the spread of the virus and protect residents.
In Sandy Lake, those entering the community were tested upon arrival, before taking part in a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Around the community, no visits or gatherings of any kind were permitted. As cases rose across the country and Toronto, Winnipeg, and Thunder Bay were declared red zones, Sandy Lake further tightened its restrictions. People who wished to leave the community first had to receive permission.
“Although these measures seemed strict at the time, I am grateful for the strong approach that Sandy Lake took. It’s because of these efforts and restrictions that our community has only seen a handful of positive COVID-19 cases.”
In October 2020, elementary through grade 8 staff transitioned to assembling homework packages to keep students engaged from home. Grade 9 and 10 teachers pivoted to conduct online classes.
By November, some school functions resumed with limitations. Classes were split in half, with one-half of students attending in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Even though some classes had resumed, the school felt different.
School schedules were reduced, with elementary classes meeting twice per week. Educator schedules also shifted to accommodate social distancing protocols. Teachers were no longer able to be in school together every day.
Classrooms that used to be alive and buzzing with energy had become emptier, exceptionally tidy, and were frequently sanitized. The corridors were quiet. Because some parents chose to keep their children home, attendance decreased. As an educator, I found it challenging to engage fewer students when I was used to full classrooms. The change was especially evident with the cancellation of recess.
Homework packages continued to be delivered to students to make up for reduced in-classroom learning. Soon, we began offering prizes as incentives for students who completed their work. Throughout this time, the elementary school was being used as a distribution center for the vaccine.
Land-based learning is generally a huge part of Sandy Lake’s curriculum. Teachers will often take students rabbit snaring, ice fishing, ice skating, camping, and on snowmobile rides. Winter brings fun outdoor activities, like snow carving competitions, moose hide treating, fish smoking, and tipi making. Indoor activities including filleting, beading, and bannock making are huge staples of our school and community.
Sandy Lake’s big annual event, the February Lil Bands Hockey Tournament, typically engages nearly every family in our community. This year, many of the event’s activities were impossible under COVID regulations. Luckily, we were approved to take part in some, like snowmobiling and ice-fishing.
Some changes that resulted from COVID-19 were specific to the special education department. Programs that usually brought therapists and assessment teams into our school were suspended. Thankfully, we could still offer speech and language therapy sessions and psychoeducational assessments virtually.
Teaching in the North during COVID-19 has its challenges. Some days, it has felt overwhelming not knowing what the next day holds. As a teacher, I have had to plan with the knowledge of no guarantees. I am always aware that my lessons and programs may be postponed or canceled at a moment’s notice.
I am grateful for Teach for Canada’s support and the access to mental health resources they provide. Through Teach For Canada, I can access personal support, like counseling sessions as well as professional support and direct mentorship from my Teacher Development Manager, to help me through these difficult times.
Taking things day by day has really helped me through COVID-19. As a remote community, Sandy Lake has faced additional challenges, including water shutdowns, power outages, and internet issues.
Through it all, the people of my community still laugh and smile. We know we will get through this together.
Interested in learning more about teaching in the North during COVID-19? Read our FAQ.