White boards lined up outside the doors designate grade, course, and classroom. Yellow taped lines are spaced six feet apart, and teachers stand at the doors with spray bottles of hand sanitizer as students walk in.
From the outside of Centre Dufferin District High School (CDDHS) in Shelburne, it’s an assembly line of COVID-19 protocols and safety measures. On the inside of the local high school, hallways are now one-way flow; desks are distanced and assigned, with limits placed on the number of students allowed in a bathroom. There are no drinking fountains, no lockers, and no lunch period.
It’s a reminder of how far from the norm this school year is for students and staff.
“There is so many things that are different,” said Wendy McIntosh, Principal at CDDHS.
Students choosing to return to in-class learning at the local high school started officially on Sept. 14, following a staggered entry. It’s the first time that students have returned to the physical classroom, since prior to March Break, when schools were closed due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
“I felt pretty confident because the staff really organized things so that kids could know exactly where they were going,” said McIntosh, talking about the first day. “We had signage outside, kids were contacted, they knew what their schedules were and we had other people inside with long lists and schedules if they needed help.”
On the first day McIntosh says the whole building was excited to see the students’ faces again, to have the “human connection” part of teaching back. However, at the same time, she said there was also a feeling of sadness.
“It’s not the same experience for teachers. It’s harder to teach like this and it’s not the same experience for the kids,” said McIntosh.
Wendy Mogensen is a Grade 9 student at CDDHS and the week of Sept. 14 didn’t just mark her first day back to school, but also the first day of high school.
“It was a little bit awkward, people weren’t really talking to each other and it was different from elementary school because I didn’t know everyone,” said Mogensen. “It was awkward having to be six feet apart from people because we were in school, but it wasn’t that bad.”
The “not bad” mentality is what many of the students at CDDHS have been saying about their return to the classroom.
Walking into school with both a guitar case and backpack, Grade 10 student Lance McAfee said he was one of the few who wouldn’t be impacted by the decision to outlaw lockers this year.
“I usually take my guitar to class anyway and I play in there so it’s not any different that way, and I usually have my bag, it’s only one bag to carry so it’s not bad because I used to take it to class anyway,” said McAfee.
At the same time students note the strangeness of the safety protocols such as masks, smaller class sizes, and distancing.
Grade 12 student Karylle Valera told the Free Press that, “it was kind of weird coming out of the car and knowing that I have to wear the mask to school.”
Sophie McGowan, a Grade 11 student, who is part of the school’s second cohort, spoke about smaller class sizes.
“There were only ten people in my first class compared to, I think I had 22 in my last class in Grade 10, there were a lot less people and we were all spaced out,” she said.
On the impact that physical distancing might have on students, McIntosh expressed her concern but admitted it’s something that has to be maintained due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not ideal and it does have an impact on them, but I think it’s better than just having virtual,” said McIntosh. “They still have contact with kids in the class and there’s still that social piece even though they’re socializing two metres apart.”
While for students and staff, September has marked the first time they have entered schools since March, custodians have been working for months to prepare for their eventual return into the school.
Lisa Benham the full-time day-time custodian at CDDHS is one of the individuals that has been preparing the school – moving furniture, removing fabric services, closing bathrooms stalls, taping lines and arrows for distancing, and ordering PPE.
“It’s a lot of wiping, a lot of disinfecting,” said Benham going on to describe the constant wiping down surfaces done throughout the day.
“You’re trying to keep everybody safe and you second guess yourself if you’ve wiped down a door right,” said Benham. “It’s stressful.”
Asked about if there is pressure as a principal to ensure the school is safe McIntosh said, “Absolutely. When you’re a principal the first thing that you are responsible for, whether we’re in a pandemic or it’s every day, is safety.”
Paula Brown, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shelburne Free Press