Asked to jot down a list of significant events in their short lives thus far, the eight- and nine-year-olds in Shelley Torz’ class are flustered on a recent school day.
It takes half an hour — and some guidance from Torz — to brainstorm for their biographical timelines.
Their memorable milestones?
The first time a baby tooth fell out. The introduction of a fuzzy, four-legged family member. The inaugural sleepover one student remembers with excitement, his hand shooting up when Torz asks the Grade 3/4 class if anyone wants to share their ideas.
Not once does the COVID-19 pandemic nor related disruptions come up.
A third of the class isn’t present, face masks are hanging around students’ necks or scrunched on their desks, and there are sheets of plexiglass separating them from their peers.
Two months into the school year, students in Room 3 at Governor Semple School have adjusted to the new normal that is mid-pandemic learning.
On Wednesday, the Free Press spent a day in school to find out what it’s like to study during a pandemic.
"We’re learning, we’re joking, we’re having fun," Torz says, during an interview in her empty classroom after students left for the evening.
"(COVID-19) affects how we do things, but it hasn't changed what we do."
In a scramble to prepare for her students’ arrival, Torz — who arrived at school in a black fabric mask this morning — is sorting through materials in her brightly lit classroom and printing off worksheets. Her new microphone and portable speaker need to be at the ready so she can preserve her vocal chords throughout the day.
Planning seems to take two or three times longer this year than in previous years, she says, citing a limited mental capacity amid the pandemic.
This fall marks 19 years since Torz became a teacher, but she hasn’t taught Grade 3/4 before. Between juggling a multi-age classroom of students who missed out on nearly half of the 2019-20 school year and new COVID-19 protocols, there are no shortage of challenges.
On her lesson plan today is a rounding game in mathematics, introducing an English Language Arts project on personal timelines, and ensuring her students finish their Remembrance Day poppy paintings, among other items.
She doesn’t need to worry about cleaning this morning. The custodial team is tasked with washing tables after the school day.
Also minutes before the bell rings at 8:55 a.m., Principal Sari Rosenberg walks the halls to check in on Torz and her colleagues.
A lot of Rosenberg’s work this year has been about framing new measures — and there are a lot of them: masks, alternating recesses and no disruptive bells throughout the day — so they are understood as ways to keep one another safe.
"It just makes you question the status quo — like, why were we always sending the whole school out for recess at the exact same time? Does that make sense?" she says, adding there have been silver linings to the pandemic adjustments.
One of many changes at Governor Semple this year is cohorts alternate morning playground privileges. This month, Torz’ students can use the monkey bars and swing before school.
Parents aren’t allowed inside the building, so Torz collects the students from the playground. One by one, they enter the school through their designated door, the main entrance on Hartford Avenue.
"Wash your hands before entering this room," states a sign beside their classroom. On the other side of the wall hangs a full hand sanitizer dispenser. It reeks of cheap vodka.
Students are expected to have washed their hands and passed a COVID-19 screening before school.
Governor Semple School statsClick to Expand
Address: 150 Hartford Ave.
Division: Seven Oaks School Division
School population: 127 students in K-5
School absences on Nov. 18, 2020: 40 students, including 19 who are signed up for remote learning
Torz' Grade 3/4 roster: 17 students in total, including one in medical remote learning and three students who switched to a separate remote program for code orange
Room 3 attendance on Wednesday: 11 students in the morning, 10 in the afternoon
The third and fourth graders unload their belongings onto classroom hooks and proceed to their tables, outfitted with plexiglass dividers, at which point they can take off their masks. Nearly all of the students immediately peel the coverings off their faces.
Students in this Grade 3/4 class are mandated to wear masks, except while sitting at their desks, out for reccess or when they can physically distance. The students are expected to wear masks when they get up from their desks, sing O Canada and when they leave for the restroom.
For the majority of the day, the masks will sit on their desks or around their necks. That is, if students aren’t fidgeting with them or pulling their mask over their eyes — behaviours quickly met with an even-tempered response from Torz.
"Are we supposed to play with our masks?" she asks, rhetorically. "Be careful, guys."
The only time Torz removes her mask in class is when she’s at the whiteboard, reviewing dates in French with her students in the morning. She pulls down the material to show how she enunciates the word "mercredi" (Wednesday) with her lips.
You can’t speak French if you mumble, she says.
It’s snack time, which means the classroom will soon smell of clementines, saltines and granola bars. But first, students must wash their hands and collect lunch pails.
Each student’s name tag is accompanied by a coloured spot, either green, red, blue and yellow. Torz calls out colours so the number of students walking around at once is limited.
Lucky for the students, they don’t have to leave the room to wash their hands. The school has rented out a touchless sink for Room 3. By midday, the garbage bin is overflowing with crumpled paper towels.
When it’s time for recess, the students leave their masks on their desks or inside their pockets.
Masks are only required on the "spinny chair" on the playground, says Faith, "the oldest Grade 3er in Mrs. Torz’ class."
The third grader says she typically wears a mask for recess when it’s cold outside. "It feels like a warm blanket on your face," she says. Today, it’s above 0 C, so she left her mask, which has a panda bear’s face on it, inside.
Educational assistant Stacey Conolly admits it makes her a bit uneasy when the students aren’t wearing masks. Even still, she laughs and plays with the students. They start a dogpile at one point during the break, but Conolly quickly breaks it up.
Before re-entering Room 3, the students line up so they aren’t bunched up at the coat racks.
Torz then reviews a morning math lesson that requires students use individual whiteboards and erasers. Next, the class discusses the life and accomplishments of John McCrae, author of In Flanders Fields, before learning about their own timeline project.
It’s throughout these activities Torz takes note of two chatty friends in the back. On multiple occasions, she asks the girls to pay attention and quit hooking their faces around the glass to get closer to one another. Physical distancing is particularly tough on the girls who like to whisper and giggle, Torz later tells a reporter.
For the most part, the students talk to each other through the plexiglass as if it’s non-existent; during an afternoon writing exercise, they share ideas and press their notebooks up to the glass to show their friends.
Group work is limited during the pandemic so students can maintain their distance.
Jaxon brought cereal for lunch, but he’s having trouble opening his Thermos. Torz and Conolly give him directions on how to loosen the lid from afar so they don't have to touch his lunch.
The lunch hour is one of few times during the day Torz breaks from her students. It’s during this time she often retreats to the staff room to vent with her colleagues about the challenges of teaching during the pandemic.
Sometimes it’s about her disbelief students aren’t sanitizing enough, despite repeated reminders. Other times, it’s about being at a tipping point of breaking down in tears. Today, she expresses frustration about the province’s uncertain public health directives for schools.
During an interview after school, Torz recalls a serious discussion she had with her class when schools entered the restricted (code orange) phase.
It was then she told students they need to work "super hard" to maintain distance because they were lucky enough to be able to stay in one room.
Following another outdoor stretch, catch-up work time and an independent reading session, the students get ready for music with a pump of hand sanitizer each.
Singing is discouraged and recorders are off limits so David Stark, whose music room is now a classroom, has to get even more creative than usual.
Upon arrival, Stark directs students to find a blue piece of tape to sit on in the makeshift music room. The markings are at least two metres apart.
He then turns on William Prince’s 7 and asks students to clap along and play the drums. "You guys have a good sense of beat," Stark tells the class, before inviting them to use ukuleles.
Today they are mastering the chords used in Baby Shark, a viral tune the students recognize immediately when Stark gives them a preview.
As the day nears an end, the students shuffle back to Room 3 for a debrief of the day and discussion about parent-teacher conferences.
One of many 2020-21 firsts, the annual meetings are taking place virtually this year.
The students scribble down reminders in their journals and Torz hints there will be a spelling test the following day. Mastering the basics of numeracy and literacy are key in grades 3 and 4.
She also reminds them they must make progress on their personal timeline project over the weekend. A list of ideas and timestamps is due Monday.
The class wraps up with a counting game of Dix, but Faith runs out to catch her school bus. Her masked face is one of many framed in the rectangular windows during the commute.
Two other students also miss the match to prepare for the afternoon patrol. They don their highlighter vests, orange flags and greet families walking home with a smile under their masks to ensure everyone looks twice before crossing the road.
After Torz says goodbye to families outside the school, she lets out a sigh of relief. "I don’t know if I’m sanitizing as much as I should or washing the tables as much as I could, but it’s what I have the time for," she says. "But I think we're doing OK."
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.