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Yukon students go back to class for the 1st time since COVID-19 shutdown

Schools will not look the same as when they shut down in March, featuring distanced desks and a lot more hand sanitizer.

Schools reopen with distanced desks, class bubbles and a few shower curtains

Nelda Innuaraq, left, heads back to Grade 4 in Whitehorse wearing her 'favourite' unicorn-patterned mask. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Thousands of students returned to class in Yukon Thursday, feeling nerves and excitement as some of Canada's first schools start a "weird" new year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nelda Innuaraq walked up to Grade 4 wearing her "favourite" mask — the one with unicorns on it.

"It was strange," said Grade 10 student Samantha Kirby. She had to sanitize her hands every time she left the classroom, and wasn't allowed to have a locker.

Schools will not look the same as when they shut down in March, featuring distanced desks and a lot more hand sanitizer.

Plastic shower curtains hang between some desks at Elijah Smith Elementary School in Whitehorse. Principal Jeff Cressman says he doesn't want to make school 'scary' for students. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Plastic shower curtains hang between some desks at Elijah Smith Elementary School in Whitehorse. Red arrows plaster hallway floors to direct student movement. "Sick rooms" are ready to isolate students with a sniffle.

Posters remind students to "show respect" by maintaining distance and washing their hands.

They don't want to make school "scary," said principal Jeff Cressman. "It's not going to be people yelling at a kid if they happen to give you a hug."

Schools in Whitehorse, Dawson, Carmacks and Teslin reopen Thursday, after Yukon's first school reopened Wednesday in Pelly Crossing.

Red arrows plaster the ground at Elijah Smith Elementary School. (Laura Howells/CBC)

There was excitement in the schoolyard, as some worried parents dropped off children.

"It's all you can think about for the past week," said Grade 7 student Maura Gallant on Wednesday, who couldn't wait to see friends again.

Among the new changes, Whitehorse Grade 10 to 12 students in the three largest high schools will learn from home half the day to limit student mixing. Masks are not mandatory, but recommended for students age 10 and older when distancing isn't possible.

Teacher Marcia Lalonde is delighted to have kids in class, but said it's "nerve-racking." She worries about how to foster class community with so much distance.

"Trying to get used to that physical part of it, it's going to be hard," said Lalonde, who teaches at Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Whitehorse.

Parents and students have had mixed emotions and several concerns.

Classrooms set up with new physical distancing measures in a Whitehorse elementary school. (Submitted by Sharon MacCoubrey)

"I feel apprehensive about just the plans ... whether those are going to be enough to keep the kids safe," said Tanya Saxby, who has three children in Whitehorse.

Saxby also worries about taking time off work every time her kid gets a sniffle.

Yukon's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley said the territory is in a good position for schools to reopen, and "the kids are ready for this."

Posters reminding students to 'show respect' by following COVID-19 safety measures will hang across Yukon schools this years. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Yukon currently has no active cases of COVID-19, with its 15th case recently recovered.

"As [one of] the first in the country to start the school year, we also have an opportunity to show how well we can do this and how well we can work together," Hanley said Wednesday.

"We will all learn as we go and adapt and modify plans."

Half-day classes have received pushback from several parents in Whitehorse, who think full-day schooling should be a priority. The Yukon Teachers' Association has also raised concerns about tight timelines and a lack of information. 

Marcia Lalonde, right, says she feels like a first-time teacher this year at Vanier Catholic Secondary School. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Some parents are choosing to home school to avoid the risk.

Yukon's English schools do not have school boards. Schools have developed their own specific plans for reopening, following Hanley's safety guidelines. Yukon Francophone School Board manages three schools, and all high schoolers will return full-time.

The first day was "frustrating" for Grade 9 student Jianna Kostelnik. She says they had to stay in the same classroom all day and couldn't mingle with other friends. Kostelnik says people got in trouble for taking off masks in the hallways.

Different schools have taken different approaches. At Vanier Catholic Secondary School, for instance, students will use plastic bins instead of lockers in order to prevent clusters in the hallway.  

Elijah Smith Elementary School has created extra classes for more space.

Another Whitehorse elementary school will hold class outside for the first few weeks.

Jason Schwalm, Liam Briscoe Pryor, and Lief Cunning started Grade 10 at F.H. Collins Secondary School on Thursday. They will only be in class half the day. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Class sizes will remain at the usual caps, which range between 18 and 26 for students in kindergarten to Grade 9. For students doing half-day classes in Grade 10 to 12, there will be about 14 students per class instead of 28.

"It's a bit weird," said Grade 10 student Lief Cunning. But, his friend Liam Briscoe Pryoe says, "we'll adapt."

Principal Cressman said he felt ready, as he awaited the kids on Thursday morning.

Or at least, he says, "as ready as we can be."

Some teachers thought 'outside the box' and hung plastic shower curtains between desks at Elijah Smith Elementary School, says principal Cressman. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Yukon does not have school boards. In fact, Yukon English schools do not have school boards, but the Yukon Francophone School Board manages three schools.
    Aug 20, 2020 12:03 PM CT

About the Author

Laura Howells is a journalist from Newfoundland who is currently reporting in Whitehorse. She most recently worked as a digital reporter and radio producer in Toronto. You can reach her at laura.howells@cbc.ca and follow her on Twitter @LauraHowellsNL.

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