Back to school nears back to normal amid COVID
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COVID-19 pandemic signage that greeted students upon their arrival in recent years has been taken down and social-distancing dots painted on playgrounds have begun to fade, but the excitement of a new school year remains a constant.
“The fact that they get to come to school and see their friends puts a smile on their face, no matter what,” Nancy Fairbairn, a crossing guard at Winnipeg’s Ralph Maybank School, said Wednesday morning. “When we were shut down in 2020, and then they came back in the fall of 2020, they were so excited to get back, even though it was a little different.”
This back-to-school season is no exception, Fairbairn said after helping several families make a safe trip across Donnelly Street to attend the elementary building in the Fort Garry neighbourhood for the first full day of classes.
Upwards of 200,000 students across Manitoba are beginning the 2022-23 school year this week. For the first time since 2019-20, they will have an option to wear face coverings and participate in a full slate of extracurricular activities right away.
Shortly before the first bell of the day, Brooke and Bethany Crate ran ahead of their father on the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of their new school. The girls, who are entering Grade 1 and 2, respectively, at Ralph Maybank, sported wide smiles and matching backpacks.
Bethany expressed nervousness about making new friends because the girls studied at Brochet School in northern Manitoba in the past, but said she is looking forward to painting in art class and doing homework.
“I like gym, and I like recess. I like running around lots,” Brooke said, adding it will be easier to do the latter without a mask because she found it frustrating to wear.
Corey Frazer, a father of two, said his family is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and hopeful the new school year will go safely and smoothly.
“Us being at home working and having to raise and teach two kids at the same time was very challenging,” said Frazer, who has children entering grades 2 and 8. “And for them, it was tough because they couldn’t be with their friends, and when they had the opportunity to be with their friends, they didn’t know how to get together. It was very awkward.”
Frazer said he hopes his daughter and son will be able to build stronger bonds with their peers now that they can socialize in a more traditional way, without the restrictions or fear that has been felt since March 2020.
While the visible evidence of COVID-19’s impact — widespread mask use, one-way arrows and plexiglass barriers — has largely disappeared, a HEPA air purifier unit stationed inside a corner of the gymnasium at Darwin School is a reminder the novel coronavirus remains an issue.
The Louis Riel School Division, in which the elementary building is located, assessed every one of its learning spaces to gauge air quality and determine whether additional infrastructure was required to improve ventilation.
The aptly-named air exchange audit involved a first reading, subsequent adjustments, if deemed necessary, and a follow-up reading. The Winnipeg division’s goal is to ensure there are at least three air exchanges per hour in school facilities.
Darwin’s new portable device hummed inside the K-8 building before students arrived for meet-and-greets with their new teachers Wednesday.
“Everything will feel a bit more natural.” – Nicholas Kelly, principal
Principal Nicholas Kelly said it will supplement air exchange during physical education, lunchtime and school-wide assemblies, which have not been allowed for much of the last three academic years due to strict cohorting, when the gymnasium is bustling.
Kelly said the back-to-school experience will be much more typical this year, given the welcome return of school clubs and sports, woodwind and brass instruments, lockers and canteen operations.
Teachers also won’t have to spend as much time “reviewing (COVID-19) protocol after protocol after protocol,” he said, noting community members are well-versed in following public health fundamentals and will be able to access masks at school.
“Everything will feel a bit more natural,” Kelly said, shortly before students and caregivers started streaming into the building for in-person appointments. “Teachers will be just working on creating that classroom community and belonging within their room, and throughout the first few days of September, the month of September, that will just build within the school.”
Darwin is continuing some early pandemic adjustments that proved successful, including using different designated entrances to improve flow in and out of the school and assigning students with storage buckets so they can easily transport work, he added.