Ottawa·Point of View

Lessons learned from the return to school

When Quebec announced it would be reopening schools, Kazabazua teacher Letha Henry felt nervous for both herself and her six-year-old son. But after two weeks back in class, everyone's learning how to navigate the new normal.

Western Quebec teacher Letha Henry shares what it’s like to be back in class during COVID-19

Letha Henry, a teacher in Kazabazua, Que., was nervous about returning to the classroom, but two weeks in she's feeling optimistic that she can make this a positive experience for both herself and her students. (Submitted by Letha Henry)

As school started up, I felt a lot of different emotions. 

It wasn't just that I was leaving the house for the first time in a while (I hadn't ​driven past ​our mailbox in three weeks). I also had to wrap my head around all these questions about what school was going to look like and how it would work. 

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We started​ well before the first day, practising new protocols, talking through each part of the day and how to do it at a distance. 

Henry says the kids are no longer worried they'll get in trouble if they get too close to one other. She simply gives them a gentle reminder of the two-meter rule that has become part of school life. (Submitted by Letha Henry)

Every day, I felt more confident that I and my colleagues could navigate this situation together. This also helped me as a parent ​to feel better about bringing my own son back.

To be honest, I was nervous for him. What would that school experience be? Would it be scary? 

But I was determined to make it a positive experience and not pass our adult fears on to the students. 

In the classroom, we taped up personal workspaces for each student, marking off desks in two-meter squares with walkways for teachers to pass. We call them islands, and tell the kids it is reserved just for them.

 

We removed the furniture — the carpet, the couch, the class library. We put together a package of materials for the day so no one has to share.

One of my students told me she likes it better having her own space with everything right where she left it. She wrote in her journal, "I wish ​it was like this all the time. ​I just wish we didn't have to socially distance."

On the first day back, it felt more like a brand new school year. I had a new group of students — because just three of my class of 18 decided to return.  

Henry and her son Rafa were both nervous about returning to school after COVID-19, but Rafa is now so excited to see his peers every morning that he's ready to go at 6:30 a.m. (Submitted by Letha Henry)

In our small rural school, we have two multi-age classrooms. In my group, I have five students from kindergarten to Grade 2 — and two of them are my son and his best friend.

The first week back, many of the teachers talked about how tired we were. You have no patterns to fall back on. Everything is new, and even something like supervision in the yard requires extra vigilance. 

I think ​some of the kids were nervous and didn't know what to expect. They'd heard lots of talk in the news.

Recess was a big learning curve. The play structures are off limits so no more tearing outside and running to the climbing wall. No more tag.

At first, that took a lot of instruction. My own son was worried about getting in trouble if he forgot to stay two metres apart. But I think now he and the others know that they get a gentle reminder and we carry on.

Instead of focusing on what is off limits, we talk about what we can do. Things like dribble your own basketball, skip rope or draw with chalk. We have a small wooded area in back, and they can space out there. ​We have a new game where we spin the wheel and choose a different handwashing song every time we come in, to make it a little more exciting. 

For students who returned to Queen Elizabeth Elementary School in Kazabazua, Que., spending time in the forest behind the schoolyard, where they can spread out, has been a highlight. (Naomi Fishman)

No, we can't cozy up and read a book together.​ But we can hold up books and read them to friends from a bit farther apart.

Though my son was nervous at first to return, he was also missing his peers while at home as an only child. We explained that school can be safe if we do these new things to protect ourselves. Now, in the mornings he's dressed at 6:30 a.m. and ready to go.

Personally, though I was nervous too the first time, I realized when I got here just how much I'd missed being in the classroom. Even under these circumstances, being back here just feels like being home. 

When Henry's students returned to school on May 12, they found these squares marking each one's own personal spaces. (Letha Henry)

I imagine some in Ontario are disappointed that schools aren't reopening. But many teachers I know are also relieved. I understand both sides.

There are many who are scared, and who think this decision in Quebec was not timed well. I have had time to come to where I'm at today, where I'm optimistic that I can make this time great for my students. But it was a roller-coaster getting here, and I know not everyone shares my view.

Henry now teaches just five students, from kindergarten to Grade 2. She started the year with 18, but many didn't return when classes resumed on May 12. (Submitted by Letha Henry)

I know my classroom looks nothing like what it used to.

But I think now, if you were to ask the kids about their day, they probably wouldn't even think about what's changed. They'd think about the games we played, the time we spent in the forest and the fun we had.  

Western Quebec teacher Letha Henry was nervous when that province reopened schools. She shares what it's been like, two weeks in. 4:42

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