In-person classes resumed Tuesday for a number of school boards in the Greater Toronto Area, and students were buzzing with excitement about being finally able to mix and mingle with old friends and meet new ones.
Tuesday’s return to class marked the start of the first school year without COVID-19 restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic.
Neeko Ali — who is entering Grade 2 at Dixie Public School in Mississauga — said he is meeting his online friend in person today for the first time.
“I’m feeling very, very, very, very, very excited,” he told CBC Toronto.
“The best thing about the first of school is making new friends,” he said, adding that he is also looking forward to “recess and eating my pickles.”
Neeko’s mom, Niki Crooker, said her son was in online classes for half of the last school year because she had a new baby and the family wanted to keep the kids safe from COVID-19.
Crooker said Neeko “is excited to come back,” but for her “it’s bittersweet because he’s my helper with [his brother].”
Health measures relaxed in schools
For the first time since the global health crisis began, the school year is starting with students in the province, who resume class Tuesday or Wednesday depending on the district, able to attend class without wearing a mask, while in-person lessons will trump remote options.
Students will also have access to extracurricular activities for the first time since then, as the province’s education minister Stephen Lecce stressed the need for the return to the “full student experience” earlier in the summer.
Sisters Ummaima and Amna Raheem both said they “are very excited to go to school.”
For Ummaima, having a new teacher is the most exciting thing about about Tuesday return to class.
Online school “was great, but I didn’t like it that much because the teacher was not there … in school is better,” she said.
Like the kids, Grade 5 teacher Marilyn Bosnjak is “very excited” to be back and says she “can’t wait” to meet her new class.
With students making the transition from online back to in-person learning, Bosnjak says her first priority will be to make sure everyone feels safe.
“Some kids have been wearing masks for the last year, some kids have been online and now we’re coming back here, so just making sure that they’re OK.”
Head custodian Steve Chapman says “it’s always good on the first days” with “lots of excitement.”
At Westacres Public School in Mississauga, children carrying brightly coloured backpacks laughed and chatted excitedly Tuesday morning as they lined up outside, waiting for the bell to ring.
A few steps away, groups of parents also caught up with each other, some with pets and younger children in tow as they stood near the school’s entrance.
“It’s really nice to see the familiar faces again … so I think that’s one of the things I’m happiest about, the sense of community that we kind of get back from trying to return to normal life,” said Mansi Vagt, whose four-year-old son was going into senior kindergarten.
Her son started the last school year in person, with masks, but had to switch to remote learning in January during the wave fuelled by the Omicron variant, she said. He’s now “thrilled” to be coming back in person, she said.
While it’s important to be cautious and mindful of any future developments in the pandemic, including potential new variants, “it’s just really nice to see the kids back at school and back with their friends and back with their teachers,” Vagt said.
“It’s a whole different world than them being online and stuck in front of a screen.”
After a much-needed break over the summer, the return to in-person learning provides helpful structure, said Julie Kalantzakos, who dropped off her four children at Westacres on Tuesday.
Her two youngest, five-year-old twin boys, were “a little hesitant” about coming back to school, but her two eldest, an eight-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl, “just ran off this morning, happy,” she said.
“I think everyone’s ready to get back into the routine of life and some order and for the kids themselves just to see their friends and school is their second home,” Kalantzakos said.
‘We’re ready for a normal school year,’ parent says
Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to COVID-19 measures, and Kalantzakos said she teaches her children to respect other people’s boundaries. Personally, she said, “we’re ready for a normal school year.”
Ontario’s medical officer of health announced last week that people who test positive for COVID-19 no longer have to isolate for five days, but can return to work or school once their fever is gone and their other symptoms have been improving for at least 24 hours.
Moore said people should wear a mask for 10 days after the onset of symptoms and keep up-to-date with their vaccinations, calling the combination a “pragmatic and practical” approach for work and school environments.
But the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation say they’re worried allowing children and educators to return to the classroom while still potentially contagious could cause the virus to spread faster in schools.
Some health experts, including members of the province’s now-dissolved science advisory table, have also raised concerns about the changes, particularly in light of the new school year and the expected return of other seasonal viruses.
“Millions of kids across the country will be now coming into these indoor settings and that is a setting where viral spread will become easier to occur,” Dr. Fahad Razak, the science table’s scientific director, said last week.
When asked about the risk of spread in schools, Lecce said Tuesday he expects students “to stay in school right to June in a much more stable environment.”
Opposition politicians, meanwhile, said the province hasn’t done enough to promote COVID-19 immunization in children ahead of the school year. “I’m concerned that the government isn’t making this as enough of a priority. It’s clearly key to keeping our schools open,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles said Tuesday.
The government made a third dose available to those between the ages of five and 11 last week.