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Canadian students prepare for COVID-19 school year during fourth wave

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WATCH: Parents, kids prepare for return to school amid Delta concerns – Aug 29, 2021

The discomfort of wearing a mask all day at school, falling short of the minimum age to get vaccinated, uncertainty over whether in-person learning will continue through the semester: These are some of the concerns of Canadian youngsters as they prepare for another pandemic-altered school year.

The Canadian Press asked three students about how COVID-19 has affected their learning and what they anticipate as the first day of class approaches.

'BACK-TO-SCHOOL MASKS'

As Tecumseh Hotomani gets ready to start Grade 5 with a fresh haul of notebooks, markers and funky food-themed pencils, there’s one addition to his backpack he’s less excited about.

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The 10-year-old will have to wear one of his “back-to-school masks” _ as his mother calls them _ to set foot in his Winnipeg school on Sept. 8.

Read more: ‘Really unpredictable’: Worries mount over return to school amid 4th COVID-19 wave

Tecumseh says the mandatory face coverings are uncomfortable and make it hard for people to hear him talk. But he’ll do what it takes to see the inside of a classroom for the first time in months.

He doesn’t mince words when he recalls the shift to virtual school last May as Winnipeg grappled with a devastating third COVID-19 wave.

“I hate school in my house,” Tecumseh says.

His mother, Grace Redhead, says her sociable son struggled with the isolation of remote learning and public health restrictions that limited the size of group activities.

“He couldn’t even go visit the friend down the street,” she says. “Not having any sports or any time to just play with friends was hard.”

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Parents share concerns about kids heading back to school – Aug 29, 2021

The logistics of creating a learning space at home also proved challenging at times.

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Tecumseh and Redhead, who was also working from home, shared a space in the family’s basement.

“I had to go in my room sometimes because my mom talks too loud,” Tecumseh says matter-of-factly.

Tecumseh says he’s looking forward to leaving those distractions at home so he can get back to playing soccer with his friends at recess.

Redhead hopes her son’s final year at his elementary school won’t be disrupted by a COVID-19 resurgence.

“For two years now, they haven’t been able to do a Grade 5 graduation,” she says. “I would love for him to be able to have that.”

'WE MAY NOT BE COMING BACK'

When Ari Blake sits down at his new desk in his Grade 6 classroom next month, he hopes to settle in for the full school year.

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The 11-year-old is looking forward to reuniting with his friends and teachers for the first time since Toronto schools were shuttered last April as the pandemic’s third wave pummeled Ontario.

Ari remembers how he and his Grade 5 classmates found out they likely wouldn’t return to school after spring break.

“I remember last year, my teacher was saying, pack up all of your stuff, grab all of your work, because we may not be coming back.”

Read more: ‘We’re in big trouble’: Doctors worry Canada’s 4th wave of COVID-19 could be biggest yet

He’d made the shift to online studies before when a COVID-19 case sent his class into a two-week quarantine, and again when in-person school was suspended for about a month and a half after the Christmas break.

During this last and longest stretch of virtual learning, Ari says he found it hard to focus on his Zoom lessons.

At times, he says, there was so much commotion in the digital classroom his teacher wouldn’t notice that he’d raised his hand to ask a question.

Ari says students often forgot to hit mute, and the din of barking, yelling and other background noises could be overwhelming.

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“Sometimes when that was happening, I just turned off the sound so I could concentrate on my work.”

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Ask an Expert: back-to-school anxiety – Aug 29, 2021

Ari says he developed self-directed learning strategies to stay on top of the curriculum. But there was no replacement for the social interaction of being in school.

“I got to see (my friends) online, but it wasn’t really the same,” he says. “It felt like it was fake.”

As the ring of the bell approaches, Ari hopes he’s placed in the same cohort as his friends, because otherwise they won’t be able to play together at recess.

But a year shy of the minimum age to get vaccinated, Ari worries that it may not be long before COVID-19 forces him to pack up his desk again.

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“It feels a bit weird, because you don’t know what can happen the next day,” he says. “I want everyone to get vaccinated so we can go back.”

COVID-19 LEARNING CURVE

As she gets ready for her final year of high school, Maitri Shah says many of the pandemic protocols that at first felt unfamiliar have now become routine.

The Calgary student knows her way around the arrow-marked hallways that direct the flow of traffic between periods. She’s used to putting on her mask as she walks onto the school grounds, and disinfecting her desk before she goes to her next class.

Read more: Parents share concerns about kids returning to school amid COVID-19 4th wave

COVID-19 has posed a number of academic challenges, says Maitri. But if there’s anything she’s learned in the last school year, it’s how to roll with the pandemic-related punches.

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“It’s definitely a change. But over time, you pretty much get used to anything, and you have to get used to it,” the 17-year-old says. “There’s all these hurdles, but we’ve figured out that there’s always something that you can do.”

At the start of the last school year, Maitri says she sensed some unease about the contagion risk of being in the classroom.

But it soon became clear that her charter school had put in place contact tracing procedures to prevent the virus from spreading within its facilities, including sending students home for a two-week quarantine if one of their classmates contracted COVID-19.

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Tips to be prepared for back to school – Aug 29, 2021

This did create complications for Maitri’s individualized class schedule. For example, if her English class shifted online while students were quarantined, it would be hard to keep up with the in-person lessons for her calculus course.

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“The teachers tried their best to give us guidance while we were online, but really, there’s only so much that can be done,” she says.

“I got a lot better with developing work habits and time management just because I had to motivate myself and keep focused on my own.”

Even as last spring’s COVID-19 surge prompted several provinces to shift to remote learning, schools in Alberta for the most part remained open.

Maitri believes she and her classmates benefited from these efforts to make the school experience “as normal as possible.”

“Everyone was a lot happier when we were in-person,” she says. “Just being with other people, that’s half of what school is.”

Read more: Toronto District School Board reveals ventilation system upgrade ahead of return to school

As she enters Grade 12, Maitri feels all the more confident about returning to the classroom now that many of her peers have been vaccinated.

She’s hopeful that she’ll be able to celebrate her academic achievements at an in-person graduation ceremony, and perhaps even attend a dance or two.

But as concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant mount, Maitri says she’s prepared for the possibility that these high school milestones may not hew to pre-pandemic tradition.

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“Of course, I’d like it if we had all of that in-person stuff,” she says. “But I know that it might change at a moment’s notice. And I know that the alternative isn’t completely different or unexpected either.”

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