Excited, anxious and stressed: How Canadians felt as school resumed this week

Anticipation, excitement, stress and anxiety: students, parents and educators felt a heady mix of emotions this week as classes started again amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what they shared about the first day of school.

'We have to do everything to keep the kids safe,' says parent

Students, parents and educators felt a heady mix of emotions this week as classes started again amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Anticipation, excitement, stress and anxiety: many Canadians felt a heady mix of emotions as students headed back to in-person classes across the country this week.

Students, parents and educators shared their first impressions about returning to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what some of them told CBC News. 

'I got you covered'

Monday night was "pretty stressful" for Theresa Morris as she organized school supplies and labelled each pencil, eraser and container her daughter needs since pandemic rules dictate students can't share them. On Tuesday morning, the Surrey, B.C., mom was so preoccupied with getting eight-year-old Azel and toddler George ready that it wasn't until they were nearly at school that she realized she'd forgotten her mask. 

"My daughter had two masks in her hand and she's like: 'I got you covered,'" Morris said. "So we definitely have the preparation thing down."

Theresa Morris and her toddler, George, pick up her daughter Azel from the eight-year-old's Surrey, B.C., school on Wednesday. (Submitted by Theresa Morris)

Morris's first reaction upon arriving was surprise at the large number of students queuing up for each class and how few of them — or their parents — were wearing masks.

Along with class size and safety protocols, Morris is concerned about how teachers this year will address gaps in learning due to the pandemic.

Azel was excited and happy to be starting Grade 3 this week, Morris said, but that was in large part due to the more than $4,000 worth of daily tutoring the youngster had this summer and will continue with this fall. 

Having experienced disruptions last school year, Azel felt insecure and lacked confidence because she often didn't understand what was being taught, Morris said. Testing later confirmed Azel had fallen behind.

Now, even though her daughter feels caught up, Morris wants to know what's being done to help kids with learning gaps. "It would be nice just to see what kind of supports are offered for the schools [and] by the schools," she said.

WATCH | As the fall term gets underway, this is what Dr. Janine McCready will be watching out for:

What an infectious disease doc is watching for with kids back at school

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Hopeful but worried

For Afrooz Cianfrone, Wednesday marked the first time since March 2020 that her sons Jobim and Dante have stepped into a classroom in person after attending school virtually last year

"It was emotional in the morning," said the Vaughan, Ont., mother. "We went through a whole drill of how to go to the washroom, what to do with masks, how to eat our food, how to stay away. It's been stressful, I'm not going to lie." 

Afrooz Cianfrone walks her sons Jobim, left, and Dante, right, home after their first day of school on Wednesday, their first time back in person since March 2020. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

After school, eight-year-old Jobim described the first day of Grade 3 as "good," while six-year-old Dante was happy he saw friends in his Grade 1 class. Still, though more hopeful about this new school year, Cianfrone remains worried about a host of issues, from vaccination policies to class sizes and insufficient ventilation.

"We can't have a reactive approach anymore," she said. "I think we have to be more proactive, especially since we have been through it once. We have to do everything to keep the kids safe."

'Nothing better than the first day'

It's tradition at St. John Bosco School to "dance into the school year with music," according to principal Linda Hart. On Wednesday morning, tunes blared and high-fives were shared in a family reunion-like atmosphere, as students arrived at the St. John's school. 

"There's nothing better than the first day of school: fresh start, new beginnings, people are recharged after the summer and there's just a lot of excitement in the air," Hart said.

Linda Hart, principal of St. John Bosco School in St. John's, welcomed students back to school with music on Wednesday. (CBC)

"You do miss [students] over the summer and when you see them — when they come back and they're all taller and tanned for being outdoors all the time and they've got that excitement for learning — it just makes you feel good inside."

It's important students continue to feel that warmth and support in the months ahead, she said. 

"They've had a rough couple of years. We want to make sure they're happy, content and in good spirits," she said. 

WATCH | Students back at school this week met with a mix of COVID-19 safety protocols

Back-to-school safety protocols vary by province, school district

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As more Canadian students head back to school, they are met with a range of COVID-19 safety protocols that differ widely by province, and sometimes, by school district.

High school 'way closer to normal'

On Arryan Rao's first day of Grade 10 on Thursday, he boarded a bus to school and sat in classrooms alongside about two dozen other students learning about nutrition and English. He caught up with friends at lunch — while "sitting evenly spaced apart," he pointed out.

Arryan Rao got a taste of a nearly-normal high school day on Thursday as he started Gr. 10 and it has whet his appetite for even more. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The day was "way closer to normal" than what he has so far experienced at high school since the pandemic started, the 15-year-old said. 

It has whet his appetite for a more substantial return to pre-pandemic life — especially field trips, in-person tournaments and international student competitions.

"I was really nervous about today because I didn't know how it would be... It turned out to be a lot more 'like usual' than I ever even anticipated," said the Mississauga, Ont. teen.

"I haven't properly experienced high school yet. Today was the first day that I actually got to see [a nearly] normal high school. So I'm just anxious and excited to see how this is all going to play out."

'Jumping in head-first'

At school early on Wednesday as an ambassador to incoming Grade 9 students, M.J. Dela Cruz was eager to return to the halls of Winnipeg's West Kildonan Collegiate. 

"I'm not nervous at all. I'm more excited than nervous," said the Grade 11 student. "I've always been a school person and coming back to school full-time, with everyone in the school, is something that I'm looking forward to."

West Kildonan Collegiate student leaders are seen on the first day of school Wednesday. From left: M.J. Dela Cruz, Ella Spence, Mitzi Ponce and Jordan Dearsley. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

What the teen is looking forward to most is resuming choir and dance more fully than under last year's pandemic restrictions, when "it didn't feel like the normal experience of dancing because we couldn't really connect with one another."

Though things won't be fully back to pre-pandemic levels "we're jumping in head first, ready to sing whenever we can," whether it's masked indoors or singing with spacing outdoors, said choir teacher Roberta Velarde.

According to English and drama teacher Tanya Henry, West Kildonan students understand how safety measures help the school maintain in-person classes.

"Students have really shown they can really rise to those challenges and they're encouraging each other," she said. "We're just going to try to stay on that positive note and go forward."

Masked students sit in a Franco-Cité Catholic High School classroom in Ottawa. (CBC)

'Definitely going to be a unique experience'

After discovering how the pandemic can leave students feeling isolated, Norah Rahman is proactively engaging in social and academic life on campus at the University of Toronto.

Ahead of her first day, she had already built a small group of new friends through Instagram. On Thursday, a group of them gathered at Robarts Library so they could take their very first class — which was delivered online — together. 

This summer, the 17-year-old life sciences student sought out the university's academic programs supporting Grade 12 students moving into post-secondary education. She also joined the school's Muslim Students' Association in an outreach role and landed a job at Hart House on campus.

First-year student Norah Rahman has proactively immersed herself in campus life at the University of Toronto. (Submitted by Norah Rahman)

She's optimistic about building an active life on campus while balancing online and in-person learning. Her full course load includes biology, chemistry and anthropology as well as literary and investigative journalism.

"I'm doing the best I can do with what I'm being given," she said. 

"This pandemic and this online situation is kind of pushing me out of my comfort zone... It's definitely going to be a unique experience and that's something within itself that has value."

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson, Nigel Hunt, Jeremy Eaton and Meaghan Ketcheson

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