Virtual learning unlikely for N.W.T. students in wake of wildfires, evacuations

Matthew Miller, president of the Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association, in August 2020. Miller and the N.W.T government clarified Monday virtual learning isn’t being pursued, despite remarks from the premier Sunday that suggested that was possible. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Lessons learned during COVID-19 don’t apply in the current situation, says head of teachers’ union

Students won’t be expected to pivot to virtual learning amid anticipated delays to the beginning of the school year due to wildfires despite the premier’s musings to that effect, says the union that represents teachers in the Northwest Territories.

During a Sunday night virtual news conference, Premier Caroline Cochrane suggested it was possible displaced N.W.T. students could need to revert to remote learning as they did during the onset of the pandemic.

“When I heard those comments, it certainly set off some stress and anxiety,” Matthew Miller, president of the NWT Teachers’ Association, told CBC News on Monday.

“We responded and took necessary steps to express our concerns and clarification was issued to confirm today that we are not considering a shift to virtual learning…. It’s just not going to work.”

About 19,000 people left the capital city, along with the neighbouring Yellowknives Dene communities of Ndilǫ and Dettah late last week as crews worked tirelessly to set up a significant firebreak to ward off a wildfire from encroaching on the community.

Rains and lighter winds on the weekend, paired with fire suppression efforts northwest of Yellowknife, helped slow the blaze’s advance from its position about 15 kilometres northwest of the city.

A wildfire burning near the Ingraham Trail in the N.W.T. The fire is one of multiple that are threatening Yellowknife, Dettah and Ndilǫ. (NWT Fire)

Students in Yellowknife’s largest school board, the Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (YK1), were set to go back to class on Aug. 28, though the district’s CEO, Jameel Aziz, has said he’s not confident that will happen.

On Sunday, Cochrane suggested that students could possibly pivot to online learning as a result of the wildfire, just as they did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It will be a little bit difficult. We have residents all over, but we did virtual through COVID. So the schools have the ability already to work with students, to be virtual and to make sure that children have their education,” she said.

“The lessons that we learned in COVID should be able to be implemented and how we’re dealing with these faculty.”

Miller, who is currently staying with his family at a hotel in Grande Prairie, Alta., said the premier was looking for possible solutions to the current situation.

“This just wasn’t … the right one and wasn’t the direction that superintendents, boards and I think [Education, Culture and Employment] were going in,” he told CBC News in an interview.

Miller said he has now written to the premier and minister of education and spoken with other individuals, including affected school division superintendents, to clarify that the NWTTA is “not considering a shift to virtual learning.”

Options to be discussed 

On Monday, the premier’s office issued a statement to clarify that “online learning is not being pursued at this time.”

Meetings were held Monday to discuss options, “including the likely possibility that the start of school in evacuated communities will be postponed until there can be further review of options for elementary and high school students based on needs and resources,” the statement continued.

Miller said online learning wouldn’t be feasible because the current situation poses different challenges than did the pandemic.

He said educators of the new curriculum, which is switching from Alberta’s to B.C.’s, haven’t yet received training. As well, teachers have limited access to schools right now; during the pandemic, educators could go in to get their resources, said Miller.

New teachers may not yet know their students or colleagues or principals — “a lot of times they may not even know who to contact,” he said.

There are also concerns about technological barriers and internet connectivity for evacuated students and teachers.

Regardless, Miller agreed it doesn’t look like students will be back in class by Aug. 28 as planned.

“We all want to be back in our communities, but right now it looks like there is going to be some disruption to the start of the school year,” he said.

“We are all part of a puzzle and we all need to be sitting down to be having these conversations,” Miller added.

“That’s what we need to be doing right now, but for now looking after people, making sure people are safe, making sure their well-being is taken care of … we need to all come together to find a solution to this problem.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: N.W.T. says no financial aid for evacuees who organized own travel, accommodations, CBC News

Norway: Smoke from Canadian wildfires forecast to reach Norway, The Associated Press

Russia: New NOAA report finds vast Siberian wildfires linked to Arctic warming, The Associated Press

United States: Wildfires in Anchorage? Climate change sparks disaster fears, The Associated Press


CBC News

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