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'It's great to see their faces': Relief, excitement for N.W.T. teachers returning to school

Expect face coverings, less furniture, no hugs, but lots of excitement for teachers and principals who are back at school in the Northwest Territories.

While some schools already in session, Yellowknife students head back Monday

Jenny Reid, the principal at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife, wears a face shield on the first day back at school on Monday. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

Six months after schools across the Northwest Territories shut down because of the risk of spreading COVID-19, teachers and principals in Yellowknife say they're ready and excited to work with students again — and it's the reason they do what they do.

The first day of classes in most schools in Yellowknife is Monday, and things are going to look and operate a little differently. 

Despite many changes, there was plenty of excitement in the air at Weledeh Catholic School, as students and teachers were reunited.

"It's so awesome," principal Jenny Reid said of seeing kids head to class again, adding distance learning just can't replace face-to-face connections. 

"It's great to see their faces even though they're behind the little masks."

However, it's taken the school an entire summer of planning to get to this point, she said.

On Monday, pylons were laid out as a visual reminder to follow physical distancing rules.

Students will also notice changes in their routine, including staggered recess times in different designated locations around the school. They'll also have to enter through designated doors of the building based on their grade, Reid said.

Orange pylons mark proper physical distancing as students head back to class at Weledeh Catholic School on Monday. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

"All of the classes also are trying to maintain their classroom bubble, so that's going to be something that's really different for us," she said.

But she has plenty of faith that students will be able to get the hang of the new pandemic guidelines. 

"The kids are a little bit apprehensive, and they don't quite know what to do," Reid said. "But we're all going to get through it together."

Kelsey Howard is a Grade 7 teacher at Range Lake North School in Yellowknife. She says she has to wear a face shield at all times when she's inside the school. (CBC)

Educators are also adapting to all of this change.

It's something Grade 7 teacher Kelsey Howard is a bit concerned about. She works at Range Lake North School, which teaches junior kindergarten to Grade 9. She has to wear a face shield whenever she's inside.

Howard has also had to remove all excess furniture from her classroom, including larger tables where students would typically do group work together. 

My biggest priority is making sure the kids feel safe and cared about.- Kelsey Howard, Grade 7 teacher

"School is a lot about community," she says. "It's where kids socialize and it makes me a little sad to see that, you know, they won't be working at communal desks and doing that kind of group work."

But Howard says she knows she'll still be able to build a sense of community in her classroom.

"I think quite a few kids and parents have their concerns about how the first day will run," she says. "My biggest priority is making sure the kids feel safe and cared about."

Focus on teaching routines, expectations

Yasemin Heyck, principal at Range Lake North School, says the first day of school will definitely be different.

For now, students won't be using lockers because it's hard to physically distance, and all the hallways are divided like a road. Traffic on stairways is also one-way. 

"Our first month is really focused on teaching routines and expectations," she says.

But Heyck adds that she doesn't expect things to be "chaotic." She says students and parents were invited to tour the school before classes started. Range Lake North School also has a dedicated website for all the updates related to the pandemic.

'I thrive on the interactions I have with kids and staff every day, so I'm absolutely thrilled that we are coming back full-time for all of our students,' says Yasemin Heyck, principal at Range Lake North School in Yellowknife. (CBC)

"I'm expecting a smooth start," Heyck says. 

And for her, that means enjoying heading back to school that much more. She says the time away has been quite hard. 

"I am super excited," she says. "I am not a distance learner or a virtual learner, so the time that we were at home was really difficult for me.

"I thrive on the interactions I have with kids and staff every day, so I'm absolutely thrilled that we are coming back full-time for all of our students."

3rd day for students in Fort Good Hope

Kids at Chief T'Selehye School in Fort Good Hope, which has about 120 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, went back to school last Thursday. 

Principal John Hamilton says many students came back to class with their own "hip and pretty cool" masks, almost like a fashion statement. 

And though hugging the teacher or friends had to change to elbow bumps or air high-fives, Hamilton says he thinks it was "a relief" for everyone to be back in school.

Jennifer Hull, Grades 6 and 7 teacher, and Amandine Chupin, Grade 1 teacher, in the computer lab at Chief T'Selehye School in Fort Good Hope. (Submitted by John Hamilton)

He says the first two days went very well: sunny skies meant for a lot of safe, outdoor learning and "the kids all showed up."

"With kids having not been in school since mid-March ... you worry, where is that taking you?" Hamilton says.

"Are we going to be in a situation where kids are maybe reluctant to come back or parents are reluctant to bring them back?"

Hamilton says while there are a lot of changes, it's going well. And the school is hoping to continue taking advantage of nice weather into the fall. 

"We're going to try and make it as normal and as friendly and as invitational as we can possibly make it," he says.

Yellowknife's Range Lake North School will be reopening with new measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 7:20

Written by Alyssa Mosher, with files from Juanita Taylor, Kate Kyle and Danielle d'Entremont

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