Staff and students in and around St. Albert say they’re glad to be back in class this month – even if it is behind a mask.
Thousands of St. Albert and Sturgeon County students returned to class in person the week of Sept. 2 for the first time since the province suspended in-person education back in March.
Those schools had changed dramatically to account for new pandemic safety measures. Students encountered one-way arrows in halls, locked-off lockers and vending machines, and hand sanitizer bottles everywhere.
Bellerose Grade 11 student Kaleigh Robinson said the start of school actually felt pretty normal, apart from the ubiquitous face masks.
“It’s good to be back.”
Elmer S. Gish teacher Melissa Zawaduk said her students were all very happy to see their friends again.
“They were actually really happy to have Math homework today, which was weird.”
Masks and sanitizer were two of the big changes at school this week. Staff and Grade 4 to 12 students are required to wear masks whenever they could not be two metres apart (which basically means all day), while younger kids are encouraged to wear them. Students also have to sanitize their hands whenever they enter or leave a school or classroom.
Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools superintendent Clint Moroziuk said teachers reported very high levels of mask use during the first few days of class, with anywhere from half to all K-3 students also wearing them. St. Albert Public School superintendent Krimsen Sumners said all but 17 students remembered to come to school with their masks on Aug. 31.
Zawaduk said students have learned to line up and get their squirts of hand sanitizer whenever they enter or leave the classroom. Grade 3 students are not legally required to wear masks at their desks, but she encouraged them to do so – “It’s either a mask on your face or give them space,” was what she told them. All of her students have been wearing masks, with some even keeping them on at recess.
St. Albert Catholic and Public schools have switched to a four-term model this year that sees students take just two extra-long courses per term.
It was challenging to plan a three-hour class, but the length gives you opportunities as a teacher, said Morinville Community High School teacher Neil Korotash. The long classes give him time to take his students outdoors, for example, and gives Biology students more time to complete dissections.
Students have been grouped into cohorts that stick together the whole day, with cohorts switching rooms at lunch, Robinson said. Each room has its own designated outside entrance, and students are supposed to go straight from the door to their room.
“You can’t really see anyone in the hallways,” Robinson said, so that has made the lunch-hour vital for socialization. (Lunch happens in either the classroom or outdoors, she added.)
Robinson said people at her school typically wear masks all day since there isn’t enough space in their classrooms to stay two metres apart. You can still chat with your neighbours, but you otherwise have to stay in your seat.
“You don’t see kids on their phones anymore. Everyone is just talking to catch up.”
Korotash said he had to sanitize all the desks and chairs in his room between classes by himself, which didn’t leave him a lot of time for lunch. Robinson said some of her teachers had students wipe down their own desks, while others did it themselves.
Korotash said he also has to teach in-person and online students simultaneously. That means juggling classroom questions with ones from online chat, and figuring out what his online students should do during in-person science labs.
In class, Zawaduk said she is doing a lot more walking than usual, as she has to march from room to room (teachers, rather than students, are moving between rooms at the elementary and junior high levels to maintain cohort groups) and do more recess supervision. She also had to scramble the weekend before the first day to create 25 bottle holsters for her desks after the sanitizer bottles she Velcroed to the desks refused to stick in place.
“I am exhausted right now,” she said on Sept. 1.
Back-to-school has been a challenge, but Zawaduk said teachers have jumped in to do what is needed to protect students.
“Everyone have patience. We’re all working on this together.”