As schools across the province of B.C. prepared to welcome students back for the new school year, administration staff scrambled to normalize their new social reality.
In the wake of COVID-19, schools in B.C. are required to divide their students into learning groups of 60 people, including staff. Children will be segregated from their friends, unable to interact with students from another cohort.
But in the small, coastal town of Kyuquot, this year will largely resemble years past.
With only 44 students attending Kyuquot Elementary Secondary School (KESS), the remote institution is able to function as one learning group
“Because we’re a small school I don’t think that there’s going to be a big impact on the kids educational experience,” said Martin Szetela, KESS principal. “In lots of ways, it’s going to be similar to what it was before COVID-19.”
Building on the province’s $45.6-million investment to support a safe restart for B.C.’s schools, the federal government invested an additional $242.4-million.
“This funding will allow schools to expand health and safety measures, purchase more personal protective equipment and increase capacity for remote learning,” said the B.C. Ministry of Education.
Safety protocols will be implemented at KESS, such as prohibiting students from drinking straight from water fountains and physical contact is to be avoided, said Szetela.
Following the Ministry of Education’s guidelines, schools will apply increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces like desks and chairs, along with additional hand hygiene. Students, staff and visitors will be required to clean their hands before boarding school buses, entering school buildings, before and after eating, using the washroom and using playground equipment.
“I think a challenge for us is going to be how to balance making sure the students know this has to be taken very seriously,” said Szetela. “And yet, we don’t want to traumatize them.”
Although the impact of COVID-19 may be less severe on the isolated school, there are other challenges it faces on an ongoing basis.
When Daniel Blackstone moved his family from Nanaimo to Kyuquot three years ago, he struggled with the new learning environment his kids were placed in.
“The quality of education took a steep dive from Nanaimo to Kyuquot,” said Blackstone, Ka:'yu:'k'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nation’s family support network coordinator. “The standard that our kids were accustomed to was much higher. They both had homework every day and they were both expected to turn things in every day from every class. When we got to Kyuquot, most kids couldn’t even hand in a paper with their name and a date on there.”
In effort to try and change the school’s approach, Blackstone worked as a teacher’s assistant for two years.
“My son wanted me to come and work there because he knows that I was a very strong disciplinarian,” he said.
When he worked at the school, Blackstone aimed to address the behavioural issues he noticed with the students. The children would swear, walk out of class, show up late and crawl under their desk and go to sleep, he said.
“We were coaching parents about how to talk to their kids so that they understand and appreciate the value of a good education,” said Blackstone. “The cultural legacy left from the residential school era still persists. We still have the stigma of what education means to First Nations people based on the residential school experience.”
The school’s principal described the students’ behaviour as “exemplary” after the last two years of improvement.
“We’ve been really pleased in our kids’ growth in behaviour over the last two years,” he said. “It was very intentional that we focused on behaviour and the kids really responded. Our kids have made a huge progress.”
The student’s behavioural challenges are layered with a high turnover of teachers and school staff.
While it was an unprecedented year, two of the school’s five teachers left mid-way through the semester last year, said Jennifer Hanson, Ka:'yu:'k'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nation director of education.
“I do think that remote schools certainly have some economic challenges,” said Szetela. “Even by retaining staff, attracting staff and keeping them. If people don’t see themselves as being able to move here, buy a house here and make this their permanent home, they tend not to stay that long.”
It is a source of frustration for many community members and leaves the students wondering whether any teacher will truly stick it out.
“We’ve had a good string of high-quality teachers who really connected with the students,” said Szetela. “Unfortunately, it really hurt the students when they knew these teachers were leaving.”
It is for that very reason Szetela is entering into his fourth consecutive year at the school. Because the principal heard the teacher turnover was high, he promised one of his classes that he would stay until they graduated.
“I’m trying to keep that promise,” he said.
Irene Joseph moved back to her traditional territory of Kyuquot from Port Alberni one year ago. The mother of four wanted to expose her children to the place where she grew up. In the same way she missed her family while living in Port Alberni, she sympathizes with the teachers who travel from all over the province to teach at KESS.
“We are very isolated,” said Joseph. “You begin to miss your family – you begin to miss what was normal to you before.”
Although staff turnover can bring difficulties, Joseph credits those who are teaching in the community for their dedication.
"My thoughts around the staff here is that they are really supportive and they do want what’s best for our children," she said. "Our children are our future."
As a way to create dialogue between parents and faculty, Joseph launched a Parent’s Advisory Committee last February. Its aim was to engage with parents, imploring them to explore the best ways to support their children in school. By fostering effective ways of communicating their children’s needs with school staff, it became a safe space to open up healthy dialogue, said Joseph.
“The dynamics of living in such a small community can be challenging because everybody knows everybody,” she said. “I can understand those challenges. Having started the parent’s club, I’ve been wanting to build bridges.”
While Blackstone feels satisfied that the school is doing their “due diligence” to keep students safe from COVID-19, he remains sceptical of the school’s educational standards.
“Our kids should be able to transition out of this school into any other school in B.C. and fit comfortably,” he said. “I can guarantee you right now that is not possible.”
The principal emphasized that one of the school’s goals is to ensure the same academic level is upheld as elsewhere in the province.
"I can’t say if that's the case yet,” said Szetela. “It’s certainly a goal of ours that we’re working on.”
There is no denying that the school’s remoteness present challenges. A day-trip to a school in Campbell River becomes an overnight endeavour for the students at KESS. It requires traveling on a water taxi, down logging roads and involves staying overnight in hotels.
“I don’t think we’re different than many small communities that way,” added Szetela. “All students are in different areas on the continuum. I think that is something many schools grapple with. It is certainly something that we grapple with and it is certainly something that we are working hard on.”