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First day of classes amid pandemic for some Edmonton area schools

Parkland County is among the first divisions in the province to restart courses, staggering its first days on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. At Graminia Community School near Spruce Grove, around 500 kids were returning to the classroom Monday morning.

Staff feel mix of excitement and caution, one principal says

Principal Corey Haley stands outside the Grade 7 and 9 entry point for Graminia Community School on the first day of school. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

It was the first day of classes for some schools in Alberta as students, parents and teachers brace for a school year that will be unlike any other in history.

Students were returning to school in St. Albert, Stony Plain, Spruce Grove and Parkland County on Monday.

Parkland School Division is staggering its first days on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. At Graminia Community School near Spruce Grove, around 500 kids returned to the classroom Monday morning.

Many students there opted for in-person classes over online alternatives, some busing in from surrounding rural areas to the K-to-9 school.

Principal Corey Haley said the overriding emotion among teachers was excitement to return — with some trepidation.

"It's a little bit of a balance between being excited to have students and then also being cautious in wanting to make sure that we are safe," he said during an on-location interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Haley said the students' smiles as they saw their friends again were evidence of the importance of schools in the community. A school's social aspects are lost when lessons are relegated to the virtual classrom, he said.

"Schools are centres of communities," Haley said, adding that families connect through school, and are encouraged to meet and chat.

Outside the school doors, that is. Visitor access at Graminia is limited in keeping with the Parkland School Division's guidelines.

"There are quite a bit of rules that we've put in place to keep it as safe as we possibly can," Haley said.

Separate entrances by designated grade are part of the public health measures being implemented in schools throughout Alberta. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

Masks, separate entrances by grade, washroom occupancy limits, foot traffic signs — all common sights for schools reopening under the province's guidance this month.

Although Haley expects challenges, he's optimistic that students will take care of each other under the new normal.

"My experience is that kids, they have a tendency to surprise in a positive way."

Many school divisions across Alberta will be starting up again this week. Edmonton Catholic Schools will have its first day on Sept. 2 with Edmonton public following the next day.

Sturgeon Public and Elk Island Public Schools return on Sept. 1.

In northern Alberta, the High Prairie School Division said on their website that the Prairie River Junior High School would delay its first day of school on Monday after an individual who recently visited the school tested positive for COVID-19. 

'Trepidation in the air'

Inside Paul Danielsen's Grade 9 classroom, communal tables have been replaced with 25 spaced-out desks, just one of many indications of new COVID-19 protocols. He says the students' energy was reminiscent of every first day of school, with an unspoken eagerness to be back, but this time with a few more nerves than usual. 

Danielsen met his class at the outside door and led them through the halls, everyone wearing their masks. When they got to the classroom and took their seats, the students could choose to unmask. Half of them did. 

In his 14 years of teaching, Danielsen's first discussion with students is often an overview of the semester's math and science curriculum. But this year, the first topic was the different routines students will be expected to follow. 

"There was a little bit of trepidation in the air and they wanted to know exactly what their routines were and to their credit they did a really good job today of being accommodating of those routines," he said. 

"There was a little bit of a different feel to the room, for sure."

On Wednesday, Danielsen will start livestreaming his math and science lessons to the seven students who opted for online learning in his class. If they have a question, the students can hit the hand-raising emoji on their screen to get his attention.

"I want them to feel like they're in class," he said.

'Bit of a roller-coaster'

Kelly Killick, who was two children starting school this week, said there was a little apprehension for parents not knowing how this school year will go. But she added parents want to do what they can to support teachers and believe the schools will be looking out for their children's health.

At the same time, Killick said it felt weird for parents wearing masks and seeing kids line up before walking into the school. Parents have had to take it day by day

"I feel like it's been a bit of a roller-coaster," Killick said, whose students attend Leo Nickerson Elementary School in St. Albert. 

"The good thing is kids are adaptable, and we're taking their lead."

Mike Slaney's daughter Livi, starts kindergarten at the same school this week. He visited with his daughter's teacher for 15 minutes on Monday morning, where he was able to see the classroom and some of the preparation the school is making.

"It was comforting," Slaney said. "It's obviously nerve-wracking to have your kid go to school for the first time and under these circumstances, it's even worse."

Slaney said he'd been feeling mixed emotions, as he's excited for his daughter to start school, but can't help feeling nervous at the same time.

With files from Min Dhariwal

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