Saskatchewan

Mixed emotions emerge as Regina students get ready to head back to in-person classes

The news that students in Regina will be heading back to the classroom has received mixed reviews parents and students.

In-person learning resumes for students on Monday

Khemissa Cardinal, who is in high school, and her mom Shana said news about returning to in-person learning has prompted even more stress and uncertainty. (Submitted by Shana Cardinal)

The upcoming return to in-classroom learning for Regina students has evoked a mixed bag of emotions, from fear and anxiety to giddy joy. 

The city's public and Catholic school systems announced that students and staff would be back in the classroom starting this coming Monday. In the public system, elementary school children are returning to regular class and high schoolers will attend on alternate days. 

Not all families are pleased with the decision. Shana Cardinal, mom to Grade 11 public school student Khemissa, was shocked by the move. 

"The timing of this announcement is not ideal. We actually anticipated being out until the end of June, just given the variants and the amount of cases in Regina," Shana said.

Shana said that even if her daughter is diligent with protocols, it's not clear if other students will do the same. 

"Some of the youth that attend schools in our city, they have been out and about gallivanting without masks on," Shana said. "We can control ourselves, but we can't control others."  

Shana said she feels for the staff, many of whom aren't yet vaccinated. She also worries about mental health. She's seen her daughter — and other youth Shana works with as a mental heath therapist — face challenges.

She said there are worries about uncontrolled environments, crowded classrooms and being labelled a close contact, let alone contracting the virus.

"We're in school, we're out of school or in school or out of school. That's another whole stress level for students and staff," she said. "I don't think the timing was right. We have two months of school left. I think we need to ride it out." 

A student's concerns

Mercedes Phillips, 16, thought people were joking when she first heard they were going back to school. 

"When I looked into it more, I realized that they were being serious and I actually just had no words." 

She did have feelings. She was disappointed and scared. She said she thought about how hospitals are overflowing with patients and variants are affecting younger people. She also thought of the young teen who recently died in Brampton, Ont., Emily Victoria Viegas.

"That could be any of my peers, any of my fellow students," she said. "It is a big deal and is serious."

Phillips said she knows some students rely on school for socialization.

"Or school is really an escape for them. They need to be back in person," she said. "I understand that, but I think at the end of the day, if it's not safe, you can't go back."

Mercedes Phillips is a 16-year-old high school student in Regina. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Parent hopes return creates sense of normalcy 

Tammy Wagner can't wait for her daughter, who is in Grade 12, to return. 

"I might be in the minority, but I'm really happy," she said. "Overall, her mental health is better and happier when she has positive peer interactions." 

Wagner said her daughter has transformed from a happy-go-lucky, optimistic social butterfly to feeling down and isolated in her bedroom. 

Wagner, also a social worker, said social contact and routine are critical to adolescent development. She said many families don't have the resources to connect their children with therapists to deal with the challenges isolation can create. 

Like Cardinal, Wagner has also seen the pandemic negatively affect the mental health of youth. 

"There's just really nothing to look forward to for them right now," she said.

Tammy Wagner (right) is hopeful that the return to school will provide a tiny bit of normalcy for students who have been without routine — or hope — throughout the year. (Submitted by Tammy Wagner)

Wagner is hopeful COVID-19 protocols will minimize the risk of exposure in schools. She's hoping a return to the classroom can be a bright light for her daughter after a tumultuous final year of high school. 

"When the announcement came out, she was in our kitchen, Face-Timing three of her girlfriends, and they actually screamed in glee. Honestly, that's not something I've heard from her or her friends recently," she said. "I had tears in my eyes."

On the fence about a return

Barb McGrath's son, who is in Grade 7, has been bouncing in and out of in-person learning at his elementary school for the entire year.

McGrath said she and her husband are fortunate to be able to work and still be at home for their kids. She knows this is not viable for all parents. That's why she wants to see a hybrid option in the public system where parents can keep their kids home, but still learning, if it works for them. 

"If we decide that it's still too risky, we will keep him home," she said. "He's not happy about that, because he knows his friends are back in the classroom. But at the end of the day, we need to make the decision that's right for our family."

She and her husband are on the fence about sending their son back. She said they have been confident about the school division's decisions up to this point, but now they're concerned because the return-to-school announcement appears to hinge on numbers. McGrath said this doesn't make sense because, statistically speaking, Regina is worse off now than it was when classes went online

"It doesn't feel transparent." 

A spokesperson for Regina Public Schools said the decision was made in consultation with Regina health officials based on numbers that show a "distinct reduction" in school-aged students affected by COVID-19. Those numbers have not been publicly released. 

Regina numbers worse than before 

​The province only publicly provides a provincewide age breakdown for cases, with no region-specific age information.

When Regina schools went remote, the city had 141 confirmed variant cases and 434 presumptive variant cases. To date, 3,584 variant cases have been identified in the city. 

On March 19 the city was reporting 583 known active COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday there were 810. 

Hospitalizations in the Regina area have also increased, as has the test positivity rate, and the number of people in the ICU has more than doubled.

"Regina Public Schools continues to be prepared to change direction or alter its decision if we get the recommendation to do so from Regina Medical Health Officers," the spokesperson said.

with files from Alex Quon

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