The Precariousness of a once-certain academic year: thinking about returning to school amidst a global pandemic

A socially distant gathering with friends in Brown’s Inlet Park   PHOTO: Alexa MacKie

By Alexa MacKie

Three times a week, my alarm sounded at 6 a.m. so I had time to get dressed and still be early for band rehearsals. Friday lunches were spent at school newspaper meetings, and Thursdays meant another music practice. I juggled classes, a social life and events like Trivia Night and Coffee House. My weeks passed quickly as it did for students across the province who followed similar routines.

In mid-March, it was announced that schools would be closed for two weeks after March break. While some saw this as an extended vacation, no one expected two weeks to turn into a month, then another, then no return at all due to COVID-19. School went online until the end of the academic year. I woke up at 11 with no band rehearsals, newspaper meetings, Trivia Night or Coffee House to attend. With this in mind, it is still uncertain what schools will look like this fall.

The Ontario government announced in late July that secondary schools will operate a hybrid system, in which course instruction will be partially online and partially in-person. In classrooms, masks will be mandatory, and there will be strict social-distancing measures.

“I understand and respect that the hybrid model is for the safety of students and staff,” said a student entering Grade 11. “However, it doesn’t sit right with me that people can go and get drunk at a different bar every day while I can’t go to school every day. What does that say about our priorities?”

When classes continue both online and at school, the usual pattern of students will inevitably change. Course instruction may be planned out, yet many other aspects of education come into question. Will group assignments be completed social distantly or online? Will students have access to lockers? Will extra-curriculars like bands and sports be possible?

One of the biggest worries for students and parents alike is the quality of teaching. Class sizes will be limited to about 15 students. This may require more teachers and more time to effectively cover the subject matter. The effectiveness of online resources with less in-class and one-on-one interaction is also a concern. Nonetheless, it is pertinent to realize that all teachers and students are faced with the same challenge of adjusting to a new way of learning.

A big hope is that extra-curriculars will be run the way they were pre-COVID. For many students, these activities are one of the greatest motivations for going to school. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that extra-curriculars will be entirely reinstated. Sports are often played in teams and involve physical contact, making it difficult to play while keeping a safe six feet apart. Bands and choirs will also be a challenge, as up to 80 students are often crammed together in order to blend sounds and harmonies. Much like classes, extra-curriculars raise many questions about feasibility and safety.

Despite the government’s plan, we are mostly in the dark about how the coming school year will work. Nevertheless, there are ways to be prepared. Students can take a step ahead by finding resources about the material they will study in the fall, enhancing the understanding of a subject. This includes using workbooks, going to websites like Khan Academy or watching YouTube videos of lessons.

It may also be useful to practise for extra-curricular activities in case they resume in some fashion. Learning class material may not be enjoyable for everyone, but most students are fond of their non-mandatory commitments, making it more pleasurable to put in the work on them. Students can practise their school instrument, do exercise in preparation for sports and complete other tasks that will serve a purpose without becoming a tedious chore.

One of the biggest challenges when school returns will be the social aspect. Eating in the hall with a group of friends or sitting next to each other in assemblies will most likely not be allowed, so the best way to interact may be to continue as we are doing now. This means connecting virtually by video calls or social media and having safe, socially distant gatherings in the great outdoors.

No one saw COVID-19 coming, certainly not students focused mainly on achieving good grades and being with friends. The pandemic demanded a major adjustment that was impossible to prepare for. However, it has also given us a new sense of gratitude and longing for the old planned-out routine that has been stripped away by the pandemic.

Alexa MacKie is a Glebe Collegiate Institute student going into Grade 11 in the fall.

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