Mercedes Phillips says going to school during the pandemic has been far from normal, but on Thursday it felt absolutely surreal.
At lunchtime, like many others, the Grade 11 student at Regina's Campbell Collegiate received two emails notifying her that she was a close contact to people who tested positive for COVID-19.
As a precaution, Phillips says, she went to the school's office to pick up a rapid test. When she walked out, the 16-year-old noticed her classmates weren't fixed on eating their sandwiches or socializing but rather swabbing their noses and throats.
"It felt like something from a movie," Phillips remembered thinking as she watched people do rapid tests in hallways and classrooms. "It was crazy. I had never seen anything like it."
As of Friday morning, Regina Public Schools said 104 new COVID-19 cases had been reported since classes resumed on Tuesday.
By Friday afternoon, the principal at Campbell announced a change to the school's notification process for possible COVID-19 exposure. Instead of multiple letters for each close contact, staff would send out a single mass note every day that lists all infected classes so families can check to see whether they're affected.
"Thank you for your assistance, patience and understanding as we navigate the increasing numbers of COVID-19 due to the latest variant," Nancy Buisson wrote in the email to students and their families.
In a statement to CBC News, Regina Public said the notification change is a pilot project and "an attempt to keep families informed, while minimizing duplication of notifications."
Thom Collegiate is also testing it, the school division added.
The Regina Catholic School Division, which listed 79 new cases in its schools between Monday to Thursday, says it might also consider changes to its close-contact notification system. However, at the moment it's sticking with individual letters to students affected.
CBC News received similar responses from Saskatoon's public and Catholic school divisions, which also posted 85 and 88 cases, respectively, as of Friday morning.
'Nothing more the schools can do'
Phillips, who's double vaccinated, has since tested negative for COVID-19 and is not experiencing any symptoms.
As per the government's new guidelines, that would mean she's allowed to return to in-class learning. However, she has no plans to go back any time soon.
"[Students] really do want to be in school — we really do — but, at the end of the day, if it's not safe and these situations are happening we can't be in school," she said, adding Campbell's move to a mass note over individual letters is a sign schools are overwhelmed by COVID-19.
Phillips's fellow Grade 11 classmate, Minjung Kim, 16,who hasn't received a close contact note so far this week, says she plans to stay in school as long as she can, even if that means juggling between her health and education.
"I'm pretty nervous every day going to school," she said. "I'm worried that people around me might have COVID … It's pretty scary knowing the numbers."
Kim says she's been taking extra safety precautions, such as double masking and going home for lunch.
Phillips says she's noticed more students have taken initiative this week in preventing the spread of COVID-19, such as switching to KN95 or medical masks.
[Students] really do want to be in school — we really do — but, at the end of the day, if it's not safe and these situations are happening we can't be in school. - Mercedes Phillips, Grade 11 student
As with many parents and teachers, she says, some students were also looking for further guidance from the provincial government as Saskatchewan enters the Omicron-fuelled fifth wave of the pandemic.
"Nothing has been put in place for [the] Omicron [coronavirus variant], after the break, to keep us more safe," Phillips said. "It's been business as usual."
Phillips says many things, such as physical distancing, are nearly impossible in a school setting. That's why she'd like to see a return of the hybrid model, which incorporates virtual and in-class learning.
"You can't make the hallways bigger and take away students — there's no way of fixing those clustered areas of individuals," she said. "There's nothing more the schools can do to keep us safe."