British Columbia

'I feel like I'm a different kid': The first day of second grade — in a pandemic

Raphael Khezerniya, 7, was one of thousands of kids across B.C. who started school Thursday.

Raphael Khezerniya, 7, was one of thousands of kids across B.C. who started school Thursday

Raphael Khezerniya, 7, gets ready for his first day of school. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

Raphael Khezerniya, 7, is one of thousands of kids across B.C. who started school Thursday, and if you ask him how it feels, he's got one word: "great!"

The second grader, who goes to elementary school in New Westminster, B.C., said he was excited to go back because he would no longer be "stuck at home."

His mom, Anna Maniam, says the decision for her was a bit more uncertain. 

"It feels very weird," said Maniam, referring to the fact that after she had spent months telling her son to keep physically distanced and not touch anything, she was sending him back to the classroom.

"I'm putting a lot of faith in our education system and our public health and hopefully nothing horrible happens."

Anne Maniam packs her son Raphael's backpack for the first day of school. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

Going to school in a pandemic means a whole different routine.

"Some of the things I have to tell him is when you see your friends, I know you get excited, but you can give them air hugs, air high-fives," Maniam said.

When packing his backpack, she reminds him gently that he shouldn't share his supplies with anyone else. 

Khezerniya is unfazed.

He says he'll play "air tag," which will require no touching. 

Anne Maniam says she has had to teach her son Raphael, 7, different rules around socialization due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 'Some of the things I have to tell him is when you see your friends, I know you get excited, but you can give them air hugs, air high-fives.' (Shawn Foss/CBC)

Maniam is a single parent and says sending her son back to school was the best option for her. She said the principal and teachers at her son's school have been very responsive, but she still has concerns over physical distancing and what could happen if there was an outbreak.

"He gets overexcited sometimes and forgets everything," she said.

Even with his bubbly enthusiasm and hope — "COVID-19 will end. It will definitely end," he says, assuredly — Khezerniya notes things are different in his world. 

"I feel like I'm a different kid or something, like I'm somewhere different ... like a place with COVID-19."

Raphael Khezerniya, 7, plays with his foam nunchuks before heading to his first day of Grade 2. 'That’s my favourite thing to do,' he says. (Shawn Foss/CBC)
Raphael washes his hands and dons a mask, before leaving for school. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

B.C.'s back-to-school plan will see over half a million children, teachers, educators and support workers head back to in-class instruction this week, with new public health measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For the vast majority, it'll be the first time they'll be back in the classroom since schools were closed during the March spring break because of the pandemic. 

The return to in-class instruction has been subject to criticism from some parents and educators who have said it is inadequate, and sought alternative options like online schooling. But Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, has maintained the cost of keeping schools closed is too high for children, saying they need in-class learning for their social and emotional development. 

It's not known how many students will actually return to in-class instruction. Education Minister Rob Fleming has said districts are expecting 85 to 90 per cent student attendance.

Anne Maniam and her son Raphael are greeted by staff at their elementary school on the first day of classes. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

After his shortened class on Thursday ends, Khezerniya proclaims it a "great" success, and proudly displays his first assignment — a brightly coloured colouring page that says "I Practise Patience."

Maniam said upon arriving in class, Raphael had to use hand sanitizer and was directed to an individual desk and chair labelled with his name. 

"They actually had desks for each student. They have all their belongings there and they stick to that, so there's no sharing, there's no contact in that sense," she said.

She says, overall, the day went by more smoothly than she anticipated.

"I thought it was going to be a lot more chaotic given how unsure and uncertain we were these past few weeks, but it was a lot more organized than I expected," she said. "I'm a lot relieved now."

Raphael Khezerniya, 7, holds up the colouring sheet he completed during his first day of class on Sept. 10, 2020. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

With files from Zahra Premji

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