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Very different 'first' day back at school for students, staff

Parents and students wait for to head into school at Constable Edward Finney School Monday morning. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Parents and students wait for to head into school at Constable Edward Finney School Monday morning. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Before the mid-pandemic school day even starts, students at Constable Edward Finney School have to take a quiz — and get a perfect score.

Do you or anyone in your household have a new onset of fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or a combination of a runny nose, muscle aches, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting and any of the above respiratory symptoms? Have you had a run-in with anyone who is confirmed to have COVID-19 in the last two weeks? Have you travelled outside Manitoba in the last 14 days?

On Monday, Jobandeep Kaur had all the right answers: nope, nope and nope. After weeks of anxiously awaiting a return to school to see her teacher and best friends, the nine-year-old earned her spot on the blacktop.

"I feel like this is the first day at a new school all over again. I’ve been in this school for like two years, but I feel like I’m new here," said Kaur, a Grade 3 student, as she waited to be escorted into her classroom for the first time in more than two months.

Jobandeep, her father and younger brother arrived in the schoolyard at 9 a.m. sharp; she said she was equal parts excited and nervous about the return, adding that her father has been especially anxious about the virus. 

Students and their families — some wearing masks, others with their nervous smiles visible — gathered outside the school in Winnipeg’s Mandalay West neighbourhood for a limited return Monday.

Each group chose a colourful marker tied to the fence to stand by to ensure they were at least two metres apart. Then, they waited for school staff to approach them, ask them a series of screening questions and escort them inside, individually.

The province’s decision last month to green-light a return to class in a limited capacity was met with mixed reactions in school divisions. While some schools have opted to invite students back for one-on-one tutorials, others are offering half-days back in their classrooms throughout June.

"We have this window. We’ve been told it’s safe. We don’t know when it’s going to close, so let’s use it," said Karen Hiscott, principal of the Seven Oaks School Division K-5 school.

"Let’s get used to what it’s going to look like and how we’re going to do this. I think the longer you keep people away, the harder it is to come back so… It has been a bit rushed to be back today, full time, but I’d rather this than September and trying to get people feeling safe, coming back after that length of time."

Few more than a half-dozen kindergarten students started their programming in a physically distanced circle on the grass out front of the school. The goal is to keep students outside as much as possible, Hiscott said.

Inside the school, teachers began to catch up with students in groups no larger than four. The learners sat on carpets and desks at least two metres apart. Should they need a bathroom break, the hallways are decorated in footprints of different sizes, guiding students through the school in a physically distanced fashion.

The day has also been split in two to maximize the number of students who can return. There’s a 9 to 11 a.m. slot and a 1 to 3 p.m. slot. In between, custodians and support staff will clean doorknobs and surfaces.

Pre-pandemic, almost 500 students and teachers visited Constable Edward Finney School on a given day. On Monday, all sessions included, fewer than half that number returned in some form. 

"I’m not used to such a quiet classroom," said teacher Brianna Hicks, in between calling out Bingo words during a Grade 3 lesson.

Across the city, the classrooms at Kelvin High School were also emptier than usual — the norm since mid-March. Some teachers, however, returned Monday to reconfigure their classrooms for one-on-one and small group instruction in the coming weeks.

The Crescentwood high school has been equipped with arrows that lead visitors down hallways, stairwells, classrooms, labs and offices in a meticulous manner to ensure students and staff don’t break public health protocols. Upon arrival, students undertake screening, sign-in and sanitize or wash their hands in bathrooms that now have a single-person capacity. The water fountains have all been taped off.

Principal Maria Silva said Monday the opportunity to return in a limited capacity will allow students to reconnect with school after a period of uncertainty. "There’s a myriad of reasons as to why they might’ve had a hard time during online learning, and (this is) an opportunity to perhaps ask questions, get certain concepts reinforced and really have that teacher guidance and direction," Silva said.

As per a notice sent to community members in the Winnipeg School Division, "While June won’t be a full return to school as usual, it is a beginning toward our new normal." 

June 30 marks the last day of an unusual school year.  


Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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Updated on Monday, June 1, 2020 at 7:47 PM CDT: Updates story to final version.

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