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(By Sidney Cohen · CBC News · June 27, 2022 – Used with Permission) –

Sarah Chinna, centre, just graduated from Grade 12 at Chief T’Selehye School in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. ‘It kind of feels like I missed out on a chunk of what being a teenager felt like,’ she said of high school under the pandemic. (Submitted by Matthew Kirby)

For many students graduating in the Northwest Territories this year, more than half of their time in high school was spent under the dark cloud of COVID-19.

This meant school closures, cancelled extracurriculars, lost travel opportunities and months of remote learning. 

“It kind of feels like I missed out on a chunk of what being a teenager felt like,” said Sarah Chinna, who just finished Grade 12 at Chief T’Selehye School in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. 

Chinna said school disruptions and remote learning affected her classmates differently.

For some, it was easier to do schoolwork at home. 

For others, it was hard not having anyone around who could help them with assignments.

The pandemic’s impact on student progress in the Northwest Territories isn’t yet fully understood. 

One way to examine it could be through the graduation rate, but N.W.T. educators suggest this doesn’t paint a complete picture. 

Cindi Vaselenak, the superintendent of education and CEO of Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (YK1), said it will be some time before educators can determine the extent of COVID-19’s repercussions on student achievement. 

She said there was no significant change in graduation rates at YK1.

Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife. Cindi Vaselenak, the superintendent of education and CEO of Yellowknife Education District No. 1, said it will be some time before educators can determine the extent of the COVID-19 fallout on student achievement. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

Last week, CBC News reached out to several principals, education bodies, the territorial department of Education, Culture and Employment, and non-governmental organizations to get a better sense of how more than 28 months under a pandemic affected N.W.T. students’ learning and progress. 

Most educators agreed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student life, and that a lot of students struggled. Many also commended students for their hard work and resiliency through this extraordinary period in history. 

“It’s been a very challenging time for the graduates and families, but their perseverance is amazing,” said Lorraine Kuer, assistant superintendent at the Sahtu Divisional Education Council.

The Sahtú region had 19 graduates this year, down about five from the average over the last eight years, said Kuer.

“We really attribute it to the hardships brought on by the pandemic,” she said.

Students in front of ?ehtseo Ayha School in Délı̨nę, N.W.T. in May. ‘It’s been a very challenging time for the graduates and families, but their perseverance is amazing,’ said Lorraine Kuer, assistant superintendent at the Sahtu Divisional Education Council. (Submitted by Jason Dayman)

Unclear how many days of instruction were missed

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola first recommended schools close for an extended period during March break in 2020.

But the total number of instructional days, and in-person learning days, students across the territory’s education districts lost due to the pandemic wasn’t immediately clear. 

A territorial education department spokesperson said the government is still gathering information on school closures and shifts to remote learning.

The spokesperson said that in March of 2020, schools closed to in-person learning for the last third of the school year. 

In 2020-21 and 2021-22, the percentage of days in remote learning varied across the territory, as communities responded to their own pandemic risks and outbreaks, said the spokesperson. 

This school year saw more significant impacts, she said, with some schools in remote learning for as much as half of their total days of instruction.

“It felt like we were doing the first day of school three or four times this year because we had stops, we had starts, we had stops, we had starts,” said Deborah Reid, principal at Chief Sunrise Education Centre, the JK-to-Grade 12 school on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation Reserve. 

“It’s really hard to keep kids engaged and families engaged with a school that’s not always open.”

Students stand outside the Chief Sunrise Education Centre, the JK-to-Grade 12 school on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation Reserve, this spring. ‘It felt like we were doing the first day of school three or four times this year because we had stops, we had starts, we had stops, we had starts,” said principal Deborah Reid. (Submitted by Deborah Reid)

Remote learning a ‘disaster’ in Gamètì: acting principal

School closures “pretty much killed” student progress at the Jean Wetrade Gamètì School in Gamètì, N.W.T., said acting principal Richard Brock, who moved to the community from Sudbury, Ontario, this year.

“It just seemed to me that any kind of home or remote learning was an absolute disaster, from our perspective here,” he said.

Brock attributed much of that disaster to poor access to the internet in the community.

Gamètì’s JK-to-Grade 12 school had around 50 students this year, but no graduates, said Brock. 

This isn’t unusual, he said, and this year COVID-19 was just one of many reasons why no one received a diploma.

“I don’t think it’s any one particular thing,” said Brock, when asked why students aren’t graduating in Gamètì. 

“It’s timing. It’s like, who are the students? Who are their parents? Who are the teachers? Who’s the principal?” among other factors. 

Three graduates walked the stage this year from Chief Sunrise Education Centre, the JK-to-Grade 12 school on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation Reserve. (Submitted by Deborah Reid)

The graduation rate

The N.W.T. graduation rate is an estimated percentage of high school students that satisfy the requirements for a high school diploma.

In 2020, a report from the Auditor General of Canada stated that the territory’s method for ascertaining high school graduation rates — dividing the number of graduates in a given year by the number of 18-year-olds in the territory in that year — inflated graduation rates by nearly 30 per cent when compared with the auditor general’s method. 

Today, the N.W.T. graduation rate is calculated by counting how many students in a Grade 10 cohort graduated within six years of starting Grade 10. The method also adjusts for students who move to, or away from, the territory.

The education department says it uses a six-year window so that students who take longer to earn their credits, for whatever reason, have a chance to be counted in the graduation rate. 

It also means it may be years before the full impact of the pandemic shows up in graduation rates.

This year’s graduation rate hasn’t yet been calculated, but Northwest Territories graduation rates during the first two academic years affected by the pandemic weren’t that different from years prior. 

In the territory overall, the graduation rate was 58 per cent in 2019-2020, and 60 per cent in 2020-2021. The average graduation rate over the last decade is 56 per cent. 

The auditor general said in 2020 that access to quality education was better in larger communities than in smaller ones, and this is borne out in graduation rates, which are uneven across the territory.

Percentages are much higher in Yellowknife and regional centres than in smaller communities. 

For example, the most recent graduation rate in Yellowknife was 74 per cent, but across the small communities, it was 45 per cent.

COVID-19 exacerbated pre-existing problems

COVID-19 exacerbated problems that already existed in N.W.T. schools, said Matthew Miller, president of the Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association, the union representing the territory’s teachers.

Problems, for instance, with attendance. 

“It was a struggle, at times, for people to be switching back and forth between remote learning and in-person learning, so attendance definitely was affected,” said Miller. “But, you know, we had an attendance issue before COVID.” 

The pandemic wasn’t all bad, though.

There were fewer behaviour issues in class, said Miller, and some students actually do better in an online learning environment.   

Several educators said they expect the next school year to look relatively normal.

However, should schools be forced into remote learning again, Fort Good Hope graduate Sarah Chinna has some advice for those students.

“When you’re studying or trying to do assignments and homework at home, don’t do it in a comfortable place,” she said. “Do it how you do it at school — at a table.” 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sidney Cohen

Journalist

Sidney Cohen is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife.

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