Fisher River Cree Nation is making the transition to online learning easier by giving students in the community a free laptop or iPad and internet connection device.
“It’s a great thing… because not every family actually has the money to afford a laptop,” said Grade 12 student Koby Wilson.
Wilson is one of 470 students who attend the two schools in the community about 170 kilometres north of Winnipeg. He works part time at the local restaurant and is a councillor for Fisher River’s junior chief and council.
During the first few weeks of the school year, students were given paper homework packages.
In October, the Fisher River Education Authority received an order of 230 Toshiba laptops which were given to students in Grades 5-12.
Now on school days, Wilson wakes up in the morning and logs into the Ochékwi Sípí Ka-ihspak Kiskinohamakéwikamik (Fisher River’s high school) virtual high school at the same time that classes would normally start.
He said it has been a stressful school year thanks to COVID-19 and that it has taken some time to get used to doing all of his classes online.
“The biggest challenge for me and for most of us is that we don’t have that in-person communication like we always had for most of our lives,” said Wilson.
The original education plan for Fisher River was to do a “blended model” that would see students go to in-person classes on a rotating schedule mixed with online learning.
On Sept. 9, Fisher River Health Services was notified that someone in the community had tested positive for COVID-19, making it one of the first First Nations in Manitoba to record a positive case.
“That changed everything,” said Davin Dumas, the director of Fisher Rivers Education Authority.
“We learned from when the pandemic first started… that just sending homework packages home and having teachers phone home periodically just wasn’t cutting in regards to providing any kind of quality education.”
The laptops were given to the students to keep.
“When you give somebody something, they will take better care of it if it’s their own,” said Dumas.
MiFi boxes, which connect to cellular networks to provide internet access, were also distributed to allow students to shift to online learning.
According to Kelly Selkirk, the Fisher River post-secondary co-ordinator, the online education that students are now receiving is “leaps and bounds above the pen and paper homework that they were getting.”
Her daughter Emma is in Grade 12 and is expected to graduate this year.
“I think it’s really been beneficial to the mental health and to the emotional health of our students, not just my daughter, but to other students as well,” said Selkirk.
“Having that connection for one another is really important.”
While the Grades 5-12 students in Fisher River have received laptops, the students from nursery to Grade 4 will each be getting their own iPad within the next couple of weeks.
Dumas said there have been “hiccups” for teachers and students adjusting to online learning, but he has heard that students are happy to connect with each other.
“The main purpose of this is so that teachers can connect with the children and so that children can connect with each other. And that’s been the focus of why we’ve invested a considerable amount of money into the technology,” said Dumas.
While he didn’t specify an amount, Dumas said the First Nation was able to get a cheaper price on the laptops, iPads and MiFi boxes by ordering bulk through a partnership with Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre (MFNERC).
MFNERC director Charles Cochrane said he is aware of other First Nations in Manitoba that are starting to order things like laptops for their students.
He acknowledged that some First Nations don’t have the internet infrastructure to completely shift to online learning, although he is optimistic that things will change in the near future.