Demetri Garcia describes the experience of going back to his seventh grade classroom after a month in COVID-19 quarantine as being akin to his stomach “collapsing in on itself.”

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Demetri Garcia describes the experience of going back to his seventh grade classroom after a month in COVID-19 quarantine as being akin to his stomach "collapsing in on itself."

"I got into the classroom, and saw my classmates, who all said: ‘Welcome back!’ and it made my stomach feel even worse. I sat down in my chair, tried not to look at them, and stayed silent because of the sheer fear of being back," the 12-year-old wrote in a recent non-fiction narrative assignment at River Heights School in Winnipeg.

"I was scared to be in public and talk to people again."

A positive COVID-19 test is unnerving enough, let alone having to return to junior high school after the fact — unsure of how people will act.

In an interview with the Free Press, Demetri recalled not wanting to talk about the experience at all, once he first returned to school in late November; instead, he wanted to shrink in his seat. But days later, he decided to put his feelings on paper when given the chance in English class.

Following a lesson on how to show rather than tell through writing, Demetri and his peers were tasked with picking an emotion they once felt strongly and then describe the scene with descriptive language.

Demetri picked "anxiety."

His final piece, "Back in School" would be published in a classroom collection of best non-fiction narrative works from the fall.

"This kind of writing is about telling your truth. We’re trying to teach kids to be honest," said Colin Steele, a retired teacher who has been filling in for an absence at River Heights School.

Steele said it’s been his job as a teacher this school year to gauge how students are feeling and make them feel as comfortable as possible.

Citing how visibly anxious Demetri was upon his return, Steele said he was surprised Demetri chose to be so vulnerable in writing, which was shared with, and well-received by, the rest of the class.

Not only was Demetri stressed out about being around other people after being cooped up in his room alone for weeks, the Grade 7 student said he also worried about the academic workload he had to catch up on.

After learning his father had tested positive for the novel coronavirus — having been deemed a close contact of a co-worker who had broken public health directives and attended a Halloween party — Demetri went to get swabbed with his mother, who he was staying with at the time.

Only Demetri, who spends time at both his mother and father’s homes, received a positive test result, in early November.

He experienced a sore throat, nausea, dizziness, a cough and at one point, woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t move.

"It just sucks as a parent, when you can’t do anything for your kid... knowing that he was struggling with an illness that nobody can really help him with," said Gorete Rodrigues.

Rodrigues added the situation was made even more frustrating since both she and Demetri’s father had been "extra cautious" because each household has a baby.

Meantime, Demetri said his school has been strict about COVID-19 precautions. Among them: masking, announcement reminders to stay apart, and physical distancing requirements.

The principal, Demetri said, has entered his classroom more than once with a measuring stick to ensure desks are spaced two metres apart.

"I always thought it was real and I was pretty careful and I just kind of stayed away from people. I have the same mind-set (now)," he said, adding it is annoying to see other students mingling around in clusters outside after school.

His advice for peers who are not taking the pandemic seriously?

"It was not fun. It was hard to breathe, so if you value being able to breathe, take it seriously."

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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