The Current

New books, new masks: What the first day back looked like at this Montreal school

The pandemic means kids and teachers returning to classrooms across Canada will face new circumstances and challenges, including mask wearing and physical distancing.

Kids in staggered return to classrooms across Canada

On her first day of Grade 1, Victoria Wyse, 6, shows off her backpack and her small bottle of hand sanitizer. (Joana Draghici/CBC)

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Kids heading back to class are packing hand sanitizer and masks into their new book bags this week — as well as some back-to-school jitters that aren't the typical September nerves.

"I'm kind of scared: what if I get the coronavirus and nobody knows," said six-year-old Victoria Wyse, who started Grade 1 at Bancroft Elementary School in Montreal.

Victoria also had a lot of regular worries — a new teacher, more math homework — but she was ultimately keen to get back and see her friends. Her class is part of the staggered return to schools across Canada, with each province offering guidelines on physical distancing and mask wearing.

The Current's Matt Galloway visited Bancroft Elementary School as it welcomed kids back on Aug. 31, speaking to families and teachers for the documentary A Very Different Year

As Victoria and other kids arrived at the school yard, they were separated by grade into small groups, and led into class by teachers wearing masks.

A lot of questions are coming up in this hectic back-to-school season. A fundamental one: is it safe to return? CBC's Sean Henry looked into the government's response and plan. 1:10

Victoria's mother, Jackie Alvarado, whose other daughter Jordan is in high school, admitted she was a little nervous and "didn't sleep very well" the night before, worried about the family getting sick.

"We're just trying to go with the flow and hope for the best."

The entire family is making a sacrifice to get the girls back to school, having decided not to see the girls' grandparents for the first few weeks. 

"That's very hard because the girls are very close to their grandparents," Alvarado said. "We need to protect them."

Teachers told to keep distance

Grade 4 teacher Donna Friedman-Perlin normally teaches math and English at Bancroft, but is also guiding her students through physical distancing and good hygiene practices this year.

"I'll be wearing a visor when I have to get very close to them — a mask and a visor," she said.

Bancroft Elementary School in Montreal welcomed students back Aug. 31, with new measures in classrooms and common areas. (Joana Draghici/CBC, Submitted by Donna Friedman-Perlin)

The school's protocol is that teachers stay two metres away from students, but Friedman-Perlin thinks that will be difficult when young children need help.

"It's just hard because they may not be getting the support that they always needed, but you may have to give it from a distance."

Throughout the first day, Friedman-Perlin said kids in her class were very cautious, wearing masks when required — even sometimes when they didn't have to — and washing their hands frequently. 

As a teacher, she's required to wear a mask at all times, which left one child concerned she would be too hot. 

She reassured him that she could take it off when she ate lunch in a room by herself, but thought "it was cute that he was so concerned."

Watch for warning signs: psychologist

The new classroom rules are being explained carefully to students, said school psychologist Cheryl Wiltzer.

"The children are being taught and they are having routines where they are practising those things," she said.

Donna Friedman-Perlin usually teaches math and English, but is also helping children understand the new physical distancing rules this year. (Submitted by Donna Friedman-Perlin)

She added that the children are already aware of the rules after months of lockdown, but they will also be taught other ways to connect.

"We could do things other than hugging — like we could tap with our elbows — they'll be given alternatives," she said.

Despite missing months of lessons, Wiltzer said the immediate focus isn't to "start off with a math test on day one to see how far behind we are."

"We're here to listen and to keep an eye out for the children that may be more at risk," she told Galloway.

"Some of them, their parents have lost their jobs or housing, or [there's been] child abuse."

She said each child will have a story to tell about how they've overcome obstacles during their absence from school.

"We can't look at it as a one-size-fits all. We have to look at it as an individual thing, and the goal is to build their resiliency."

School psychologist Cheryl Wiltzer, left, and music teacher Francois Lukawecki, right, were on hand to welcome parents and students back to Bancroft Elementary in Montreal Aug. 31. (Joana Draghici/CBC)

Music teacher taking creative approach

With concerns that singing creates aerosols that spread the virus, music teacher Francois Lukawecki is planning to teach his students all about desktop drumming.

"Using your hands, we're doing body percussion … so different hand positions, different claps and slaps," he told Galloway.

"There is a small part of me that's grateful for the opportunity to be forced to think outside the box and revisit my teaching and come up with new activities," he said.

There's really been a feeling that we're being given information at the last minute, and this information changes often.- Music teacher Francois Lukawecki

At the same time, Lukawecki said he is stressed about teaching without access to his music room or instruments. That stress is compounded by last-minute, vague and contradictory government directives, he said.

"I think the government hasn't done a very good job in preparing the families and especially the teachers."

"There's really been a feeling that we're being given information at the last minute, and this information changes often and sometimes for reasons that are not explained to us," he said.

"There's some anger there for sure." 

Those concerns were echoed by hundreds of teachers in response to an email questionnaire circulated by CBC Montreal and Radio-Canada in late August.

In a written response to CBC Montreal, the Education Ministry said it has taken every step to prevent the spread of the virus and to ensure a positive educational experience for students, but "in the context of a global pandemic, it's no surprise that staff are feeling more anxious than they were last fall."

"The collaboration with public health enabled us, last spring, to bring hundreds of thousands of students back to class, without relaunching the pandemic," the statement said. "We are confident that by following their recommendations once again, we can do the same this fall, for the benefit of staff and students."

Victoria Wyse with her father Darryl Wyse and mother Jackie Alvarado on the first day of school on Aug. 31. (Joana Draghici/CBC)

Parent nervous about outbreaks

Alvarado said there's an unfortunate element of trial and error in trying to get kids back to school.

"I think our government, although I don't agree with 100 per cent of their decisions, I do think that they're trying their best and they're going with what makes more sense," she said.

While Victoria enjoyed her first day back in school, her mother is still nervous about outbreaks in the classroom, after hearing about outbreaks in schools that have already opened.

Since schools have reopened in Quebec, there have been over 100 schools with at least one reported case of COVID-19, according to the independent website Covid Écoles Québec. The Quebec government's numbers are lower, with 70 schools that have reported at least one case. 

"Who's next? Bancroft?" Alvarado said.

Evelyn Alfonzi, interim head of the school board, said it is understandable that parents are nervous, but "we need to trust the system."

"It'll take a little bit of realizing that rules are being followed, staff is making sure that all of the directives are being followed," she said.

"We need to trust the authorities who are giving us the directives to follow." 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Lara O'Brien, Joana Draghici and Elizabeth Hoath.

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