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Masks and backpacks: Thousands of Windsor-Essex students head back to class

Many students across Windsor-Essex headed back to class Thursday with one new addition to their first day of school outfit: a mask. 

Teachers union says it is 'cautiously optimistic' after first day back

Nareen Corpuz, pictured wearing a face shield, hugging her mother just outside of school. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

Many students across Windsor-Essex headed back to class Thursday with one new addition to their first day of school outfit: a mask. 

Only some students will be entering classrooms this week for the first time since March as school boards have adopted staggered start times.

But that's not the only safety measure in place. Schools are expected to have directional arrows in hallways to guide the flow of traffic, hand sanitizer stations, spaced out desks and signs reminding students of hand-washing practices. 

Katrina Lafreniere said her first day of Grade 5 was different and "tough," mostly because she couldn't interact with her friends as she normally would. 

"I was nervous at first but then when I actually went into the room I knew what to do."

Katrina Lafreniere had her first day of Grade 5 Thursday and she said it was 'tough' not being able to interact with her peers and some new students the way she normally would. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

"When there wasn't [COVID-19] we could actually walk around, talk to each other, actually go near each other, but now we have to wear a mask and not go near each other," Lafreniere said, adding it was harder to connect with the three new students in her class. 

"There's so many different things you have to do, so many different rules."

She said hand-washing was enforced and students in her class had assigned seats with their names displayed. 

After the first day, local president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Mario Spagnuolo told CBC News that he is "cautiously optimistic."

Can I say that the government has prepared us to their fullest extent? Absolutely not,- Mario Spagnuolo,  Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario 

"Today was basically a honeymoon period, because you only had half the students there," he said. "The big test will come next Wednesday when the whole school population will be there." 

He said teachers experienced some hiccups around lunch time as they were working out a staggered procedure for students opening their lunches and taking their masks off while eating. 

Overall, he said the day went smoothly, but that's because everyone is still very vigilant. 

"We have to remain this focused on safety protocols throughout the months when COVID is around. We can't let go of that. Safety is our first priority," Spagnuolo said. 

Students at St. Anne French Immersion Catholic Elementary School are to have their names logged, answer screening questions and have their temperature checked before entering. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Hours earlier, at St. Anne French Immersion Catholic Elementary School, students started the day met with staff fully dressed in PPE, who were there to log names and ask COVID-19 screening questions.

Ahead of the first school bell ring, Principal Michael Cusinato said he was surprised at the number of little ones wearing masks.

Cusinato said the consistency of school will be good for students' mental health.

"I'd like to say thank you for having them wear masks even if they're not mandatory," said Cusinato. "And we're excited to see your kids smiling, even if it's smiling through their eyes."

Parent of three Liz Durham said she bought extra plastic bags to sort clean masks from the dirty ones. 

"I think I'm as prepared as I can be," Durham said. "I read a lot. The problem is everything changes every time I read it so I'm not sure exactly what's happening 100 per cent cause you know, you remember the old stuff but I'm ready, I think." 

Liz Durham, mom of three, says she's read so much about back to school and thinks she's ready for it. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Parent Mike Mannarino said he wants his kids to go back to school but that he's nervous what the experience will be like. 

"We're not sure, everything's uncertain at the time so we're not sure how this is going to pan out," Mannarino said. "It's almost like a test, like a trial unfortunately, but we're going to see how it goes in the next few weeks and hope for the best." 

Dad Mike Mannarino says he wants his kids to go back to school even though he's uncertain how things will play out. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Meanwhile, student Jenna McConnell, who starts her final year of high school this month, said she plans to be hyper-aware. 

"I feel like im going to be very diligent with washing my hands and wearing my mask and being aware of whose around me and what im touching," she said.

High school student Jenna McConnell says hand washing and being cautious of what she touches will be top of mind. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

'A lot of unanswered questions'

On Wednesday, Spagnuolo said there are "still a lot of unanswered questions" for parents and teachers. 

Some are still dealing with large class sizes, ventilation concerns and others are still seeing changes to their class lists, he said.  

WATCH | Doctors answer some of your back-to-school questions:

The CBC's Sanjay Maru asks CBC medical contributor Dr. Peter Lin and Martha Fulford, infectious diseases specialist at McMaster Children's Hospital and Hamilton Health Science, five questions parents may have as students go back to school. 2:54

"Can I say that the government has prepared us to their fullest extent? Absolutely not," he told CBC News on Wednesday.

"There was so much more that this government could have done and they didn't. But that being said, as true heroes, we're going to go into the classroom with courage, with optimism and make the best that we can do."

He said many teachers are still "anxious," but that they can never be 100 per cent prepared and just have to do what they can given the circumstances. 

"I have a lot of faith in our teachers and our professional support staff because they got into education, because they love kids, they love teaching, they're passionate about it," Spagnuolo said, adding that while he understands the difficult decisions parents have had to make, there is "no risk-free" option. 

Help CBC Windsor cover your back-to-school stories

It's going to be a September unlike any other as students go back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Whether you're an education worker, parent, or student, CBC Windsor wants your help covering this developing story.

Click here to tell us about your back-to-school experiences. 

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