Equipped with uneasiness, frustration and pencil crayons, elementary students in northwest Winnipeg made COVID-19 their artistic muse.
A new anthology of artwork and creative writing produced throughout the pandemic documents how youth in Seven Oaks School Division navigated public health protocols and repeated learning disruptions throughout the 2020-21 academic year.
"Dear COVID, you made me feel confused and lonely because you made me isolate from my extended family. I did have my mom, my dad and my brother but I still felt lonely," wrote a student from Forest Park School, in an excerpt published in Apart, Yet Together.
More than 300 students enrolled in kindergarten to Grade 8 from 14 schools contributed to the collection, a collaborative project between Seven Oaks, True North Youth Foundation’s Project 11 initiative and the City of Winnipeg.
"We thought capturing kids' voices would be the most powerful thing and it would be really interesting to hear it from them — to hear their thoughts, their feelings, their memories, their strategies for coping, all of that during the pandemic," said Shelley Warkentin, divisional principal at Seven Oaks.
Among the 122 glossy pages are drawings, paintings, poetry, photography and digital art. Some students drew the virus or themselves wearing masks. Others wrote postcards to their post-pandemic selves. One student wrote about racism in a poem titled Asian Flu.
"We’re always looking for opportunities for some meaningful writing and creating, and this is really meaningful, where they get published," said Warkentin.
Grade 4 student Ryden Leronowich wrote about his wish to simply hear a puck slap against a goalie’s pads again and for life to "go back to normal."
"I was missing hockey and I really wanted to go back on the ice," said Ryden, 10, reflecting on a year of social distancing and "uncomfortable" mask-wearing.
Many students in Emma Dempsey’s Grade 4-5 class at Riverbend Community School expressed disappointment about the cancellation of hockey, soccer and dance seasons in their creative works. Others wrote about animals giving them hope amid all the uncertainty.
"A common trend was ‘Go away, COVID!’ That came up a lot in their writing and especially in their artwork," she said, adding pandemic fears tended to disappear when class was underway and students got into a routine. In fact, Dempsey said it is her students’ resilience, in that they accomplished so much and felt proud of their successes, that she will remember when she recalls teaching in a pandemic.
She added, "I’ve never seen them work so hard for pieces. They worked (on anthology pieces) on recess, after school, over the weekend."
Key themes in the anthology include students' growing closeness within their families in recent months, the importance of online gaming with friends as socialization, and viewing the pandemic as a time to reflect on how to better protect the environment.
Copies of Apart, Yet Together, which was funded by an $8,500 Winnipeg Wellness Grant, were given to every contributor and will be available to access in schools, public libraries, and in the Manitoba Museum’s COVID-19 exhibit.
"Students and teachers have put so much heart into this project, and sharing it with the wider community through our public library system is what the libraries are truly all about — to learn the stories of our community," said Coun. Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan).
It was during a conversation about the resilience of students and staff earlier this year that Supt. Brian O'Leary and Sharma came up with the idea to create an anthology as a sort of paperback time capsule of 2020-21.
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.