Thousands of students return to class in Yukon Thursday, feeling nerves and excitement as some of Canada’s first schools start a vastly different year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nelda Innuaraq walked up to Grade 4 wearing her “favourite” mask — the one with unicorns on it.
“It’s all you can think about for the past week,” said Grade 7 student Maura Gallant, who can’t wait to see friends again.
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. 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 gonna 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.
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 up when distancing isn’t possible.
Teacher Marcia Lalonde is delighted to have kids in class, but said it’s “nerve-racking.” She worries about fostering 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 school will hold class outside for the first few weeks.
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.
As he awaits the kids on Thursday morning, principal Cressman says he feels ready.
Or at least, he says, “as ready as we can be.”