Naomi Musa hopes Grade 12 is the year when she finally gets to have a typical high school experience.
The Toronto teen, who was in Grade 9 when the pandemic started, has missed out on a lot. But with COVID-19 restrictions lifted in schools and a full return to sports, clubs and field trips, she thinks this year could make up for it.
“I’m definitely excited for all the initiatives I plan to take on since we’ll have a more normal year,” says Musa, 17, who attends Central Toronto Academy and is eager to try out for the ultimate Frisbee team, participate in clubs like the Black Student Alliance and help student council organize assemblies, dances and events. She’s also keen to see what clubs are created at her school because many disbanded during the pandemic.
“I’m trying to involve myself in so many things, like, ‘Let me just pile it up all in this one year,’” says the student trustee with Toronto’s public school board, adding she’s trying to salvage what remains of her time in high school.
That desire for a normal academic experience after more than two years of disruption caused by the pandemic, is a sentiment echoed by students, parents and teachers as classes resume next week. This comes amidst uncertainty about how schools will be impacted by COVID and other respiratory illnesses, as well as ongoing contract talks between education unions and the province. Still, it’s off to a typical start.
Students and staff won’t have to wear masks, there will be no cohorting or physical distancing, and extracurricular activities are back on. Essentially, schools will resemble what they looked like in the spring, when many COVID-related restrictions were lifted across Ontario.
Some health and safety measures remain — masks and rapid tests will be available, daily screening recommended, hand hygiene promoted and enhanced cleaning planned — and the province has taken steps to improve ventilation and deployed more than 100,000 HEPA filter units to classrooms.
The Ministry of Education wants a full year of uninterrupted learning, given the upheaval since the pandemic’s start in March 2020, resulting in restrictions, pivots to online learning and school closures. Its “Plan to Catch Up” for this academic year includes a full school experience, and more tutoring and mental health supports for students.
“We are emphasizing life and job skills and extracurriculars, clubs and sports, because we know this is what builds well-rounded leaders,” says Education Minister Stephen Lecce. “We are excited for all students as they return to a more normal, stable and enjoyable year that is designed to help them catch up and prepare for the jobs of tomorrow.”
Lisa Nguyen, 15, can’t contain her enthusiasm. She’s been learning remotely since the pandemic started and is finally headed back to a bricks and mortar school. For the last two years, she did online learning because she lives with her grandparents, whose health challenges make them vulnerable to COVID.
“It was a pretty big decision to sacrifice half of my high school years,” says Nguyen, who’s going into Grade 11 at Northview Heights Secondary School in North York and is the student council vice-president.
“I’m really, really looking forward to meeting new students,” she says. “I’m excited to go back to those normal classes and just being in the classroom … using pencils and paper finally … to interact more with my teacher and answer questions more and be involved in discussions.”
After learning virtually in her bedroom — sometimes lying on her bed, still in pyjamas — she welcomes the return of getting dressed up, riding the bus to school and speaking in front of students. Like Musa, she plans to join various clubs — she’s waiting to see what’s offered — and try out for sports teams, including badminton, volleyball, swimming and golf, explaining, “I finally get to put my hands on things and be deeply involved.”
Mother Marie Rago is optimistic this year will be a “fresh start” for her children, Vienna, who’s starting kindergarten, and Luca, who’s going into Grade 1. Luca has never had a typical schooling experience. But he relished the taste he got last spring when rules loosened and “he got to be a kid,” tossing a ball with classmates, playing outside of designated areas during recess and hanging out with friends in other classes.
Vienna, four, is nervous about starting school, but Luca, five, is pumped about seeing his buddies and playing soccer and basketball in the schoolyard.
“He’s excited, but I don’t know if he knows exactly what it normally looks like,” said Rago, whose kids go to St. Norbert Catholic School in North York. “This will, hopefully, be a real year of school.”
She’s not too worried about COVID because both kids will be vaccinated and both contracted the virus in the spring. Plus, they’ll always have masks handy if they want to put them on. Looking ahead, Rago is prepared to “go with the flow … I’m just going to see how it goes and hope for the best.”
Not only is COVID still circulating, but other illnesses too. Toronto Public Health (TPH) is urging students, school staff and volunteers to get vaccinated, saying that’s the best protection against COVID and its variants. On Thursday, the province opened up bookings for first boosters of the Pfizer vaccine for kids aged five to 11, available to those who got their second shot at least six months ago.
While there’s currently a low risk of monkeypox for children in Toronto, TPH is sharing information with schools about this emerging infectious disease, which must now be reported to local health units. That includes how to differentiate it from other diseases with similar signs and symptoms common in children, such as chickenpox and hand-foot-and-mouth disease.
Health concerns aren’t top of mind for Mississauga mother Loveena Jain, but rather possible job action by teachers.
“It seems like every three to five years we have some unrest with the teachers’ unions and I’m just hoping that this will not be that year,” said Jain, whose daughter is starting Grade 8. “She’s in middle school and it’s possibly the last time that they can really relax and have fun before high school,” said Jain, adding she hopes for “an uninterrupted and good school year, not just academically.”
Contracts expired Aug. 31 and unions representing education workers are negotiating with the province and school board associations. Talks are in the early stages but, during the last round of bargaining in 2019, they broke down, and teachers went on work-to-rule and participated in rotating strikes. So far, there are no plans for job action this fall.
“Our members do not want to be on any picket lines. They are exhausted,” says Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which represents 83,000 members, including public elementary teachers, supply teachers and designated early childhood educators. “They want some stability. It’s been two years of hell for them.”
But there are still COVID-related concerns for some, particularly in light of the province’s recent announcement that it is scrapping the five-day isolation period for those who test positive for COVID and replacing it with a 24-hour stay-at-home rule. Now those with symptoms of any respiratory illness should stay home until they’ve improved for at least 24 hours and wear a mask in public for 10 days after the onset of symptoms.
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which represents 63,000 teachers and school staff, says people won’t know who’s had COVID or is supposed to be wearing a mask, noting, “There’s a lot of concerns and questions. So we go into a period now where people aren’t really sure what’s going to happen. From my perspective, it’s not whether or not we will have an eighth or ninth wave (of infections), it’s how quickly it’s going to come.”
Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions representing 55,000 support staff, says that as a parent her biggest concern isn’t job action, but instability. “We are heading back with a complete laissez-faire situation, where folks don’t need to isolate. Even if you are positive and you’re feeling OK, you can be at school.”
Last year there were staffing shortages in schools, when mandatory masking and isolation periods were in place, she says, adding, “Imagine what will happen in the next several weeks … My worry about instability is ensuring there’s adequate staffing.”
The bottom line is teachers want to be in the classroom and getting back to “normal pedagogical practices,” says Barb Dobrowolski, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, which represents 45,000 Catholic teachers. “Everyone is craving a little bit of normalcy in this coming year,” she says.
For teacher Mary Marcello, that includes attending in-person training sessions and sitting with colleagues at a round table discussing how best to help students, rather than talking by phone or virtually.
The special education teacher at Guardian Angels Catholic Elementary School in York Region is delighted she can again set up her classroom with students seated in groups, rather than in forward-facing rows.
“When you put kids in small groups it’s so much more powerful, it’s so rich … You’ll see healthy collaboration taking place and problem solving,” she said. “When you have kids in rows, the focus is on the teacher as opposed to each other.”
It’s also great, she says, that children can again sit on the carpet for story time and in small groups at a guided reading table to improve comprehension. Plus, they can share classroom supplies and learning tools, such as shapes, blocks and counters, whereas before each had their own collection of materials.
“It’s very important to step away from Chromebooks and get back to collaborating in small groups, dialoguing and manipulating materials,” says Marcello. That’s key “because of the learning loss that we’ve experienced these last couple of years.”
Also looking forward to a more normal year is Stephanie De Castro, who’s going into Grade 12 at Senator O’Connor Catholic School in North York. As a senior student leader, she’s excited about Grade 9 orientation, of helping transition new students into a normal environment and accompanying them on an overnight retreat — the trip is an annual tradition that was paused during the pandemic.
The 17-year-old, who’s a student trustee in Toronto’s Catholic board, is keen on getting back into competitive rugby this year. She played in the spring but, because so few schools had teams, there really wasn’t anyone to compete against. But this year, as sports programs resume, leagues should be brimming with teams.
“It’s great to have something to look forward to, other than academics, and it brings a community of girls together,” she said.
“Everyone’s talking about how ‘I didn’t get to have this “High School Musical” experience,’” she says, referring to the hit movie. “But if we really make the best out of our one year of normalcy, I think that’s great.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74