The “first day of school” feeling is forever.
Many things about being in school fade easily from memory. However, the first day of the school year remains etched, not just in our minds but, in our culture. Ontarians, for better or worse, see the Tuesday after Labour Day as a new beginning and a chance to hope for good things to come.
To say it feels different this year is an understatement. For many parents and teachers this September didn’t offer new beginnings as much as increased confusion and that familiar hope quickly gave way to fear.
The tension is simple and understandable. We’ve spent six months reducing the number of contacts with others at nearly all costs. Ontarians worked from home, cut off social ties, postponed weddings, got laid off, and yes, all schools were closed. It’s been a struggle for everyone, but a struggle that was acceptable because we knew it was helping to save lives.
Now, without much explanation, parents are being told that opening schools and thereby increasing contacts with others is the right thing to do. This whiplash was made worse by the lack of agreement between the provincial government and the school boards they govern as to the best way to get school started. Understandably, confidence in the reopening is shaky at best.
There has been much written about the plan to open schools. Options for parents, implementation of safety protocols, and potential damage to the quality of learning are all important discussions to be had and thanks to education professionals from Education Directors to teachers these discussions are ongoing.
However, what do students think?
“Very happy to be back!” said Lydia MacBride, a grade 8 student at Reesor Park Public School. “Meeting my new teacher and getting to see my friends again after so many months was the best part of my day.”
Students, it would seem, have a simpler and more personal view of schools. It’s easier to forget this.
“I liked seeing people,” said Emily Jones, a grade 12 student at Markville Secondary. “I missed seeing people’s faces.”
For her part, Jones is looking forward to graduation and a career in music production and writing. Her biggest concern was that her creative outlets at school would be cut off.
“I was excited the theatre program is still running,” Jones said after her first day. “There were more opportunities than expected.”
Indeed, while school boards and governments are fighting to catch up with the last minute policy mandates, teachers and administrators do seem to be going out of their way to make student’s experiences as full as possible, while keeping safe.
“It felt similar to how everything was before, other than the safety protocols,” said MacBride. “Barely noticed the difference.”
Still, the year is going to be full of challenges and students know it.
“The biggest challenge is going to be wearing masks all day,” MacBride continued. “They’re uncomfortable to wear.”
“I was hoping to do Co-Op, and I’m not sure if there will be placements,” said Jones. “And I’m worried about the complicated schedules; starting the cohorts.”
Of course the biggest challenge for school in Ontario this year is keeping students, and their entire families, safe, but that is a system wide concern.
It’s easy to get caught up in the rhetorical debates about education. It’s important to remember that for Ontario’s students, it’s more than rhetoric, it’s their world. It seems that front line education workers recognize this and are doing better.
“I feel like it’s more planned now,” explained Jones. “It’s not optional…it feels more normal.”
The same sentiment is echoed by MacBride, “The staff have done such a great job to make it feel normal!”
The unique nature of this school year will be remembered for a very long time. For our students though, it’s just the next year of their young lives. They want to live it the best they can.
Photo: Lydia MacBride, with and without her mask, on the first day of school.