Abdullahi Esse couldn't wait to go back to school. It's his final year at Ottawa's Ridgemont High School, and he's set a goal to study software engineering next year.
But for his little brother, heading back to elementary classes was a much harder sell.
"My little brother ... he just wants to stay home," said Abdullahi, 17. "They've been out for like six months, and now all of a sudden they went back to school and it's hard to adapt to that."
There's no question students must adapt to a variety of new situations this fall.
Measures to protect against COVID-19 mean some are only attending school half the time, while others learn remotely. There are few extracurricular activities. Then there's the lost class time for kids who show even minor symptoms of COVID-19, or who have to wait in long lines to be tested. School bus routes have been cancelled, and there's a shortage of teachers.
With all this in the mix, there are concerns that some of the most vulnerable young learners could fall through the cracks this year. Neighbours, school administrators and community supporters are determined not to let that happen.
Hoping for the best
The Esse family came to Canada three years ago and moved into Confederation Court, an Ottawa Community Housing complex on Walkley Road. They're originally from Somalia.
All five Esse kids are now back at school, and mom and dad are taking English classes, but it's a stressful time for everyone. Abdullahi translates for his father, Mohammed Esse.
"He's a bit worried because of COVID-19, like the kids are not learning as they used to," said Abdullahi. "He's like ... we all have the same problem. So we cannot do anything about it, but all we got to do is hope for the best."
"I think that is a very valid concern ... those pieces falling through the cracks," says Kristin Kopra, principal of Hawthorne Public School on St. Laurent Boulevard, the neighbourhood school for many children who live at Confederation Court.
"If a kid was out of school for a few months, I think ... the long-term impacts of that are huge."
WATCH | What schools can do:
This fall at Hawthorne, about 160 students are back in class, while another 80 are learning remotely. That means about one-third of the students who would normally belong to the Hawthorne community are now the responsibility of a new group of "virtual school" teachers and administrators organized by the school board.
While Kopra has nothing to do with the administration of the virtual school, she said she's eager to maintain those close connections between Hawthorne and all its families, especially those facing language, cultural and economic barriers.
Bridging the gap between the community and its schools is where people like Tayra-Lee Miller come in.
At the Confederation Court housing complex, Miller knows all the kids and most of the parents by name.
For most families in this neighbourhood, English or French are their second or third languages. Miller said many here have lost jobs due to the pandemic.
Her role as child and youth manager at Confederation Court Community House includes checking in to see how families are doing.
On this day, she sees two little boys playing in the sand under the swings and asks why they aren't in school. They shrug in reply.
"I'll need to check on them. They're Hawthorne kids," Miller said. "Making sure to check in a little bit more with children who are learning virtually ... I think that's definitely important."
I think with COVID and the challenges it presents, we might see more and more children from low-income households once again fall further and further behind. - Tayra-Lee Miller, Confederation Court Community House
Of the 15 community houses associated with Ottawa Community Housing, Miller said the Confederation Court and nearby Banff Avenue neighbourhoods currently have the highest levels of online learners.
"I think with COVID and the challenges it presents, we might see more and more children from low-income households once again fall further and further behind, just because they don't have the resources that other families and other children might have," said Miller.
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She worries about the longer-term implications for students who fall behind and can't catch up, including dropping out of school altogether.
Miller hopes the community house will soon be able to fill in the gaps and provide help with virtual learning. Programs such as homework club have been on hold due to COVID.
"We'd love to see ... getting in and talking more with the school boards once things get settled down a little bit, just reaching out and providing whatever assistance we can," said Miller.
A stressful time
Directly across from the Confederation Court Community House, Christine Mbona Kuete can see all the centre's comings and goings from her backyard as families stop by the community food bank or attend English classes.
Mbona Kuete uses those services herself. She came to Canada from Congo five years ago. Three of her four daughters attend Hawthorne Public School. She planned to keep the girls home this fall, but they all wanted to be back in class.
"They say, 'No mommy, we don't want to, we want to go to school,'" said Mbona Kuete. "This thing is stressing us a lot."
It's that added stress that worries the principal of Hawthorne.
"So our biggest concern, whether or not kids were coming back in person or in virtual school, was well-being and mental health," said Kopra.
But Kopra notes she has help from inside the communities, including Tayra-Lee Miller at Confederation Court and staff at local Somali organization Rajo who interpret and act as cultural brokers when it comes to navigating the education system.
"We know that we need to better meet the needs of all of our student ... specifically the students that we know — Indigenous students, Black students, brown students, [students] that we have the data around, that have not always been served well in our schools," said Kopra.
Reluctant role model
For Abdullahi Esse, this unique school year is just another challenge on his journey.
"I'm taking a lot of hard courses this semester. I was actually a bit nervous. Even though we're going a bit fast, I got to try my best to try to adapt," the teen said.
WATCH | Helping with the adjustment:
At the suggestion his volunteer work helping with the homework club and mentoring younger kids in his neighbourhood makes him a role model, he grins shyly.
"I wouldn't call myself a role model, but yeah. If I am, it's, you know, thank you," said Abdullahi. "Community is the thing that connects like everyone in this area."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.