Back to school 2021: Winnipeg students share excitement and jitters

It's the start of another school year in a global pandemic, but this week Manitoba students return to the classroom full-time after a patchwork of school closures, remote learning and staggered attendance last year.

'I'm excited to be going every day,' says Grade 10 student Zoë Wasyliw, after a year of rotating attendance

Ava Keeper, 9, shops for school supplies with her grandmother Christina Keeper. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

It's the start of another school year in a global pandemic, but this week Manitoba students return to the classroom full-time after a patchwork of school closures, remote learning and staggered attendance last year.

"[I'm] a little nervous but excited," said Ava Keeper, 9, who is starting Grade 4. 

She and her grandmother, Christina Keeper, picked up a new backpack and some last-minute supplies before the big day. It's the first time Ava will be back in class following more than a year of remote learning. 

"I'm looking forward to being with my friends and learning some new stuff," she said, adding Spanish is her favourite subject.

Keeper has mixed feelings about sending her granddaughter back to school, but she is pleased the province brought back the mask mandate for indoor public settings, including schools.

"I'm a little nervous, of course. There's so much uncertainty around the variants," Keeper said. "But I also feel that it's been so long and I'm feeling like I need to find some balance for her too."

Back-to-school is a family affair for the Lippens. All three kids and their father, a middle-years teacher, are heading back to class full-time this week.

Brennan, 12, Joshua, 13, and Emma Lippens, 9, are heading back to school in Winnipeg. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

"I'm nervous to start the new mathematics and the higher times tables," said Emma, 9. "But I'm excited for the other stuff and mathematics."

She and her older brothers were able to attend class full-time last year so they know to expect masks, plenty of hand sanitizer and physical distancing.

Paul Lippens said his kids were fortunate not to have many cases of COVID-19 in their schools and he's feeling better about his own return to the classroom with the provincial mask requirement.

"I'm happy that they brought the masks back," he said. "That was something that I was kind of a little worried about, is having a bunch of kids without masks." 

Provincial employees, including teachers, also need to be fully vaccinated by the end of October or be tested for COVID-19 up to three times a week.

Hoping for normalcy

Lippens hopes this school year brings some normalcy for students.

"I'm hoping it will be a more regular year — that the kids will be in class more," he said. "We had to do some alternate days at the school I teach at and I found that very [challenging] and the learning was difficult for some of our students, not being there everyday."

Consistency is what Grade 10 student Zoë Wasyliw is looking forward to. 

"I'm excited to be going every day, since it's going to be a lot more normal now," she said.

Her first year of high school was spent in class three days a cycle and working at home the other days.

Zoe Wasyliw, 15, here with her mom, is looking forward to returning to high school full-time in-person. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

In the second semester, it switched to in-person learning for half the day before going online again, she said.

Tori Hauptman, 19, is looking forward to a break from virtual learning too. The kinesiology student from British Columbia is heading to the University of Winnipeg campus for the first time, even though it's her second year in the program.

"I'm excited because I've never been there before," Hauptman said. "I've only ever done online, and online was a big struggle, so it will be hopefully much easier this time around."

Tori Hauptman, 19, and Tia Lecox, 20, University of Winnipeg kinesiology students, say they are happy to be returning to campus. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Juliana Roe, a second-year education student at the University of Manitoba, shares the feeling. She did her first year of university from home.

"I'm excited," Roe said. "But I still feel, like, a little nervous about getting lost and stuff on campus."

Juliana Roe is excited to start second-year university on campus. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Roe said she didn't mind working remotely, but she looks forward to getting to know her professors and peers in person.

Manitoba's two largest universities and several other schools are requiring students and staff to prove they are fully vaccinated in order to attend campus this fall.

Roe said that makes her feel safe.

For other students, like 20-year-old Ari Kimelman, this school year is no different from last. The third-year psychology student at the University of Manitoba said all of his coursework is still online, because the class sizes are too large.

Ari Kimelman, 20, is heading back to university virtually this year. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Kimelman likes working remotely and hopes it's an option going forward. As for the semester ahead, he's feeling confident.

"It's always rough the first couple weeks back for everyone, but I think it's going to be a good year," he said. "I know that everyone is excited to get back into the groove of things."