As Saskatchewan students returned to school on Thursday without any COVID-19 mandates, many say they found a sense of normalcy akin to how things were before the pandemic hit.
Despite the province's chief medical health officer recently suggesting people mask up indoors this fall, masking is optional in schools across Saskatchewan. However, most school divisions are keeping up with increased cleaning measures, and many still encourage staff and students to stay home if they're sick.
Having started high school in the fall of 2019, Regina's Mercedes Phillips says she has spent much of her time learning remotely.
This year, having now had three COVID-19 vaccinations, she hopes to do all of her Grade 12 classes in person — even if that means wearing a mask to protect herself, should cases spike.
"It's really about making a new normal for myself," Phillips said.
The 17-year-old added that she and her friends have a "senior year bucket list" filled with activities around the city and potential travel destinations, but her priority remains what she can check off within the walls of Campbell Collegiate from September to June.
"It definitely feels like we've been robbed of our high school experience, which is why this Grade 12 year is really important for me and a lot of my other peers," Phillips said.
"This year, we can really focus on that high school experience that a lot of us missed out on."
Ready for full-time in-class learning
Abishek Prasath, who moved to Regina from Qatar at the start of the pandemic, says it's been tough at times to make friends between the lockdowns and at-home learning.
Now that he's heading into Grade 9, the 14-year-old says he hopes the return to a full in-person schedule will change that.
"I want to be around people — and people want to be around me because I kind of joke around," Prasath said with a laugh.
"Doing it remotely — switching off a camera, eating something in the background — that doesn't work for me. Coming here, back to school, everything is so amazing."
At this point, Prasath and his mother, Suma Panneerselvam, say they're relying on the teen's COVID-19 vaccinations to protect him against the illness so he can keep learning in the classroom.
"Last year, kids studied half online, so they didn't have time to meet or discuss or make friendships or companionships," Panneerselvam said.
"[School] has to be physical — no more virtual. That way, [students] will have good chances of learning and communicating with each other, and they'll know each other's emotions."
As he transitions into high school, Prasath says he has three simple rules: get good grades, maintain healthy relationships and embrace taking the journey as slowly as possible.
Teachers 'absolutely ecstatic' to return
For Kelli Fredlund, who teaches Grade 7 at Chief Whitecap School in Saskatoon, this fall's full revival of field trips and extracurricular activities feels like a return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
"I think all of those clubs and sporting events and things like that allow kids to find a place where they belong. That's what we're really striving for, so we can value and believe in these students," she explained.
"I think it's really important for kids — and for teachers."
Natalie Mitchell, the vice-principal and a learning catalyst teacher at École St. Elizabeth in Regina, is also "absolutely ecstatic" to return to the classroom.
"It's going to be great to have all of those smiling faces and the buzz from the joy of being in school again," she said.
For teachers, returning to the classroom means more than just prepping bulletin boards and crafting the perfect lesson plan, Mitchell said. They also need to create an environment that makes students feel cared for.
Since there are no longer any COVID-19 restrictions, she said part of that work often involves helping children one-on-one, should they be anxious about the virus.
"It's really just making sure that those students feel safe and everyone is still doing common hygiene, like making sure hands are being washed and desks are being washed," she said.
"It's all about the kids. That's the most important thing to remember."