Province delays long-term education planning for interim support year

Carol E. Corker

The province announced an interim education plan to support students who struggled to learn during the pandemic.

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After a school year far from normal, the provincial government has delayed its long-term education planning and announced a year-long interim plan in the hopes of supporting students who struggled during the pandemic.

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In light of the pandemic and the disruption that we saw in the school year over the last year, year-and-a-half, we want to put that work on the side for the time being and really focus on, as a one-year plan and the interim step, what are the priority areas,” Education Minister Dustin Duncan said in an interview Tuesday.

The Interim Provincial Education Plan was announced on Tuesday, funded by nearly $21 million left over from the province’s COVID-19 school contingency fund. This money will be divided up between school divisions.

The plan focuses on providing extra reading supports for grades 1 through 5 students and “supportive learning opportunities” for students of all ages who may have fallen behind in their studies, according to a news release. Mental health supports for staff and students are also a priority area, which includes funding the province announced in its 2021-22 budget for bullying prevention and mental health first aid training for school divisions.

The funding could go toward additional staffing or to support programs, depending on what each school needs, said Duncan. He noted school divisions were made aware of this funding in the spring and may have already spent some of it on summer programs.

The framework for an education plan that would carry the province through until 2030 was released in November 2019, with the goal of having the plan completed by June 2020. When the pandemic hit, creating a year of constant education changes, that plan was put on hold.

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Now, as elementary students begin what Duncan hopes will be “as close of a normal school year as possible,” they will be assessed for learning gaps caused by the pandemic learning environment.

Those assessments will help teachers and the province have a better understanding of where students are at. This could mean changes for the province’s long-term education plan, although Duncan hopes most students are able to get caught up within this interim year.

“If that means making adjustments as we develop the long-term plan, then we would look to make those,” he said.

Now that the interim plan is in place, Duncan said the province is already turning its focus back to finishing the long-term education plan.

But remote learning is not a thing of the past for some Saskatchewan students.

Many school divisions are choosing to keep an online school option open to families who remain hesitant about sending their children back to school.

Regina Catholic and public school divisions, Saskatoon Catholic and public divisions and the Prairie Valley School Division will offer an online school come September.

Luc Lerminiaux, director of education for Prairie Valley, which has about 8,500 students, said the division currently has six teachers who will teach exclusively online, offering classes for grades 1 to 12. Last year, the division’s online school peaked at around 650 students and averaged around 400 throughout the year.

This year Lerminiaux anticipates around 100 students will participate. While pandemic concerns are not the only reason some families are choosing to learn remotely, he said it is a “strong element” in many families’ decisions.

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Twylla West, spokesperson for Regina Catholic (whihc has approximately 12,000 students), also guessed the division will have around 100 elementary students registered in its online school.

Not every element of the online school will look the same though, said West. The program now includes a half day of in-person learning each week for students learning remotely to give younger students a chance to experience the school environment. West said the hope is this will prevent back-to-school anxiety when students do choose to re-enter regular classrooms. French immersion learning will not be supported online this year.

Despite the hesitation some families are feeling at the thought of a regular back-to-school, Duncan said the province is sticking to its Safe Schools Plan, which includes no restrictions and few suggestions for school divisions. He said school divisions are creating their own plans of what works for their students.

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