In his five years as the head of D.S. MacKenzie Junior High School, Principal Larry Payne said this is certainly the most unique year of his career so far.
"It keeps us on our toes, but we're up for the challenge," Payne said. "The energy of a school is students, and so we're thrilled to have them back."
Edmonton Public School students ventured into classrooms for the first time this school year on Thursday. The division said last week that close to 64,000 students were expected to return to in-person learning, accounting for 70 per cent of all enrolled students. The remaining students — approximately 26,000 or so — opted for online classes.
It was a staggered start for the roughly 550 students at D.S. MacKenzie, with Grade 7 students arriving in the morning for orientation, Grade 8s expected in the afternoon, and Grade 9s on Friday morning. All grades will arrive for their first full day on Tuesday after the long weekend.
Payne said the school put a lot of time and effort into trying to follow guidelines from both the province and school division.
"We really feel that we've got this and we're going to be able make this work and be successful, and mitigate risk as much as possible," he said.
Dressed in navy jackets, Payne and his staff were out on the school's front lawn early Thursday marshalling students into distanced lines based on home rooms. He said they'll practice lining up a few times during the orientation morning as well as work on other protocols, including how to move through the school safely while observing distancing requirements.
He said about 100 of the school's students have opted for online learning for the first eight weeks of the school year. The junior high will operate under a quarterly semester system for 2020-21.
Arriving for her first day at D.S. MacKenzie, Grade 7 student Haydynn Murray said she doesn't know a lot of people at the school, and she's looking forward to making friends.
"I'm feeling pretty excited," she said.
Her mom, Jamie Popwich, was a little more apprehensive, saying she worries about kids being able to wear masks properly all day.
"I think she's doing better than I am," Popowich said. "What we can't control is a little bit nerve wracking, but at the same time some normalcy will be good, some routine is going to be good," she said.
Mohammad Rajamul said he's not feeling great about his son Mohammad Faizan returning to school in light of the recent change that no longer mandates two metres of physical distancing in classrooms.
But he also said that getting a routine for his son was important. The family is stocked up on extra hand sanitizer and masks.
"We are a little bit worried," Rajamul said.
Ali Jafari echoed concerns about issues around COVID-19 as he dropped his daughter off.
"I guess that's something we [have to] get used to, at least for the time being," he said.
He said he's talked to his daughter about the importance of physical distancing, but said she's excited about getting back to school. He added that he does think the school has done a good job of helping getting parents and kids get ready to come back.
When it was time to go inside, Payne stood on a picnic table and gave a quick principal's welcome speech from behind a mask. As staff started ushering students inside through different doors, they reminded them to go slowly and maintain distance.
"We're going to try to get that routine going, so by next Tuesday we can be really slick and smooth," Payne said.