Optimism and nerves: Manitoba teachers welcome students back to school full-time

Teachers are anxiously awaiting the return of students to classrooms full-time this fall.

'I think the students are going to have to figure out how to move through the hallways again'

After months out of the classrooms, teachers are preparing to welcome Manitoba students back to school full-time this fall. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Inside a high school math classroom at Winnipeg's Garden City Collegiate, teacher Karina Hill is spacing out the desks.

The room looks a lot different than last June.

There are 28 desks — twice as many as last term when students alternated the days they attended school in-person.

"To think about that many bodies in here, it's a real mix of 'I'm excited and can't wait to see them' to 'I can't believe we're going to have that many people gathering again,' right?" she said. "Which is kind of mind blowing."

    In Manitoba, students and teachers are returning to classrooms full-time after a combination of remote learning, staggered in-class attendance and school closures last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Hill said she expects a mix of excitement and nerves as everyone adjusts to being back in school together. 

    "I think there's going to be kind of a buzz of excitement of people seeing each other again," she said. "I think there's going to be some people who are anxious or scared of being around that many people so I think it's going to be a bit of a mixed scene. I think the students are going to have to figure out how to move through the hallways again."

    More masks, sanitizer and cleaning

    Students can expect hand sanitizing dispensers back up on walls and wipes at the ready to clean off desks, Hill said. The provincial government is also mandating mask-use indoors in public settings, including schools, and requiring regular testing for teachers who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 31.

    Hill said ultimately she is ready to get the year started.

    "I'm feeling just so excited to see the students," Hill said. "Some years I feel like I wish summer could be longer. And this year I feel, you know, ready to get back."

    Inside Graham Crawford's woodworking studio at Garden City, he's rearranging tables and stools.   

    "Basically, it's just about spacing everything out," he said. 

    Crawford said he's feeling "as optimistic as ever" about the year ahead and having students back at the workbenches.

    Last year his students attended classes in person every other day. This year will be a big change, he said. 

    "Obviously being a hands-on teacher, it's very difficult to come up with meaningful remote, you know, assignments. It's doable, but it wasn't ideal," said Crawford. "I love what I do and passionate about hands-on learning. You need to be here to do hands-on learning, right? Especially with, you know, with all the awesome tools we have here and accessibility to technology."

    In Thompson, elementary school resource teacher Cathy Pellizzaro is preparing to welcome her students this week too.

    "We're making sure all the safety protocols are in place — the hand sanitizer, masks, the distancing in the classrooms," she said. "Were trying to approach it as normal as we can."

    Pellizzaro, who is also president of Thompson Teachers' Association, says she and many teachers are feeling more optimistic about school this fall, compared to last fall.

    "There's still, there's some anxiousness there but they're not as anxious as last year," she said, adding masks and vaccinations are providing a greater sense of safety.

    Mental health concerns

    James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, said he is pleased with the province's public health announcements regarding schools, but acknowledges the 2021-22 school year is not without concern.

    He pointed to new provincial data, that show young people under the age of 18 make up one-third of all new infections since mid-June.

    "There's some reassurance that we have been through a pandemic year," he said. "But there's definitely anxiety, concern, the fourth wave of COVID...." 

    Bedford said one of the most pressing concerns among Manitoba teachers, which emerged in a survey results last year, is mental wellness. 
    "We have some very significant mental health concerns within our own members and that they have concerns about the mental health of their students," he said.

    On Tuesday, the Manitoba government announced it's spending over $1 million to support the mental health of Manitoba students and educators as they head back to school.

    The money will go toward training teachers and school staff to talk about mental health and provide supports for students, teachers and staff, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said at a news conference.

    Bedford commended the commitment and said the union is also examining its own levels of support offered to teachers.

    As for the school year, he said safety will remain front and centre.

    "Last year was a difficult year, but everybody came together to create safe learning environments," he said. "We're prepared to do that again this year and keep them learning in school."

    with files from Cory Funk