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COVID-19: Omicron brings hard lessons for students

Organizations react to the Saskatchewan government's changes to COVID-19 protocols to take into effect starting Friday. Getty Images

As families struggle with balancing the safety of staying home against interacting with friends and learning at school, students are learning tough new lessons from the Omicron variant.

Saskatchewan was the only province not to delay school or move classes to online learning at the start year. Most schools used remote education in previous waves but the latest strain appears to be the most transmissible yet.

Now COVID-19 is spreading, and students are getting sick, grappling with the responsibility.

Read more: Sask. union leaders call for restrictions as COVID-19 cases surge

“I think people, especially my age group, need to realize that it’s not about like, ‘Oh, I’m going to survive and I’m not going to get sick,’” Caedy Smith said.

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“It’s more about, ‘Who are you going to spread it to?’ That is, (someone who is) immunocompromised or somebody that will not just heal as quickly as you.”

Smith is a Grade 10 student at Centennial Collegiate high school. She was receiving between 15 and 20 alerts a day that students and staff were contracting the disease before the school moved to online learning for the remainder of the week.

She was told she was a close contact of someone who tested positive recently and has been taking rapid antigen tests. So far, she’s fine.

“It has been really stressful because a lot of my friends at school have been testing positive,” Smith told Global News.

E.D. Feehan high school student Kimberly Gariepy-Epp is facing an even tougher challenge.

She has COVID-19.

Global News spoke to her mother, Bobbi Epp, who believes Kimberly caught it at school, because the family has been extremely cautious.

Classes at E.D. Feehan are still in-person.

Read more: Staffing concerns at Saskatchewan schools as COVID-19 cases surge

Epp said she was also receiving nearly constant alerts that people in her daughter’s school were catching COVID-19. Then her daughter tested positive.

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She’s extremely worried about her daughter’s health and recovery — including her mental health. She’s been in her room alone for several days now.

“She’s freaking out because she doesn’t want us getting sick,” Epp said.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Tamara Hinz said the pandemic can loom very large for students because it’s taken up a greater portion of their lives.

“I have a greater, larger frame of reference in order to remember what things were like pre-pandemic to maybe carry a bit more hope that we will get to the other end of this,” she said in an interview.

That being said, she pointed out some students are so young they may not know what in-class learning is like.

(Smith, who is 15, said she’s only had a few exams in her life.)

But being very young may also come with a further disadvantage. Hinz said no one is prepared for handling the pandemic but that it could be even worse for adolescents who were already dealing with important issues.

“What we’re seeing is that children and youth who were struggling before are certainly more vulnerable to pandemic-related effects on their mental health,” she said.

Read more: COVID-19: Two Saskatoon public schools moving to remote learning

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Many of her patients are struggling with anxiety around COVID-19, not only catching it but not knowing if they’ll be in class or not and how they’ll be affected by that.

She said focusing on what we can control, like wearing masks and getting vaccinated, and making plans for moving to online learning can help with stress surrounding the pandemic.

Kimberly regained her senses of smell and taste on Thursday, Epp said, and now only has a terrible cough.

But Epp may not send her daughter back to in-class learning even once she’s recovered because she doesn’t believe schools are safe.

“They’re so crammed together when they’re going from class to class. And I wasn’t liking… how many of those kids are actually keeping their masks on,” Epp said.

Smith said that had also been a problem at her school.

“A lot of people weren’t very (disciplined) about wearing masks and social distancing and everything,” she said, “even though the teachers did do their best to enforce that.”

Read more: COVID-19: Two Saskatoon public schools moving to remote learning

Epp believes students are safer if schools are closed. And, if they have to be open, schools should give students the option to video conference in if they’re sick or scared.

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Smith said she feels safer at home but does want to return to class because she misses interacting with other people and because she works better with a teacher in the room.

But she know it comes with risks.

“It does make me worried that because of the online learning that people have been out and like exposing themselves to other social bubbles,” she said.

“Hopefully things get better and people are more aware of wearing masks and more COVID protocols.”

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan school divisions pivot as COVID-19 cases continue surge' Saskatchewan school divisions pivot as COVID-19 cases continue surge
Saskatchewan school divisions pivot as COVID-19 cases continue surge – Jan 19, 2022

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