Bella and Hannah Gilchrist were excited to get back to school to see their teachers and friends, a decision that did not come easily to their parents.
“It was hard for me to watch them go,” says Megan, their mom. “I haven’t been that nervous since they started their first day of school.”
Hannah, entering Grade 8 at St. Davids Public School, was especially anxious to return to her last year at the neighbourhood school, to see her friends and be sure she could graduate with them, says Megan.
And Bella, in Grade 4, was finding online studying more difficult than Hannah last spring, so she is happy to be returning. Last spring, with their dad Chris working from home and the two girls also online at the same time, was a challenge, says Megan.
Although it’s early days, both girls are adapting well to the protocols they’re following at school, she adds.
Bella was a little nervous as school opening approached. She had a negative COVID test in the spring, and she is fearful of getting sick.
With an aunt who is a scientific researcher working on COVID, the girls are pretty well-informed about the coronavirus, says Megan, and have been very conscientious about washing their hands and wearing a mask, so that’s not new to them.
Bella is a touch concerned about her Grade 3/4 split, where Grade 4 students are required to wear masks, and Grade 3s are not. That’s “a little nerve-wracking for us,” says Megan, “but we trust she and the teacher are doing all they can” to stay safe.
“We’re really happy with what the teachers and principal are doing. They’ve been communicating with us to give us as much information as they can, but ultimately, it’s a parental decision.”
The girls are in smaller classes, Bella with 20 students, and Hanna with 24. The District School Board of Niagara and the school staff “have worked really hard to make classes manageable,” says Megan.
Across the board, a little more than 80 per cent of students were expected to be in class, the remaining learning online.
St. Davids had already planned, pre-COVID, to add a portable, and with some students studying virtually, there is room for kids to spread out a little more in their classrooms.
All unnecessary furniture has been moved, she says, so the desks can be further apart, and kids are spending more time outdoors. Parents were asked to send something for their kids to sit on outside. “It’s a huge property,” says Megan,” and they’re taking advantage of it. There is lots of room for kids to spread out.”
Spaces on the field have been spray-painted for each class, and that’s where the kids meet each morning before heading inside, and during staggered recess and lunch breaks.
“The kids are still supposed to be social distancing, even when they’re outside,” says Megan.
“They aren’t scrunched together at all. Hannah’s in the same classroom as last year, but every bit of furniture they don’t need has been removed. There are just desks and chairs now, to spread the kids out. We received a video from the school before their first day to see what it would look like, and that was really helpful.”
The only downside, says Megan, is that though they made the decision based on what is best for their kids, they have decided not to see grandparents and other relatives.
Megan’s mother and father are both 95, and she helps look after them. The other set of grandparents deal with health issues.
“That’s hard on both the kids and the grandparents,” she says, “but we felt the girls needed the structure, and a return to normalcy, for their mental health.”
When they discussed the options as a family, Megan says she made it clear to the girls “what they wanted wouldn’t necessarily be what would happen, but we would take it into consideration.”
They were not thrilled with the online learning being offered by the school board, which would mean they would have teachers they don’t know and kids from other schools in their virtual classroom.
“If this goes sideways, we’ll pull them out of school. But for now, we’ve decided it’s okay to send them back and see how it goes. It helps that with a small school, they know the other kids, and we know most of the families.”
Friends of theirs from St. Davids have chosen a different option, with a decision that, in their situation, was simple, says Lesley Giessler.
On Aug. 19, the Giessler family welcomed Evan, a little brother for Ava, in Grade 8 of virtual school, and Lea, in Grade 3.
The girls are delighted with their baby brother, says Lesley, and are happy to be studying online, understanding that sharing a classroom with their friends could put Evan’s health and safety at risk. A doctor at the hospital when Evan was born, says Lesley, suggested the family consider online learning.
“It really wasn’t a difficult decision,” she says, especially when she has always liked the idea of homeschooling.
They needed to purchase a Chrome Book for Lea, in addition to the laptop Ava has, although the school would have supplied the equipment if necessary, she says.
While Lesley is having to learn the technology of online learning, she and her girls are finding both their teachers helpful, making it “quite easy” for them.
While it’s early days for them as well, the girls are fine with online learning, says Lesley. They both have some friends from St. Davids in their virtual classrooms, although there are students from other schools with them. And although neither of them knew their teachers before joining their classroom online, they both really like them, she says.
Attendance is taken twice a day, and although there is quite a bit of time when students are expected to work on their own, in addition to group discussions, “the teacher is always there to help them.”
Lea and Ava were involved in the discussion about whether to study online or attend their neighbourhood school, Lesley says, “and they are super-excited to be at home with their little brother. Ava is a second mother to him.”
As a mom who had already made the choice to stay home with her kids, Lesley says while she feels very fortunate the decision was an easy one for her, she understands it’s been difficult for many parents. “I feel for parents who would have liked to have their kids stay home, but can’t. I feel really lucky to be able to do this, as long as I can get my head around the technology,” she says.
“I definitely give teachers credit for what they’re doing. They really have the best interest of the kids at heart, and it shows.”
Lesley says when November approaches, bringing with it an opportunity for the girls to transition to the classroom, Evan will be older, with a stronger immune system. If there have been no outbreaks locally and COVID numbers stay low, they may reconsider, along with decisions about outside school activities, which they are also putting off for now.
“I feel very blessed, that we were able to make this decision,” says Lesley. “I’m really enjoying this time at home with the girls.”