“We kinda feel like we’re normal”: children in Toronto shelters share their thoughts on back to school under COVID-19

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On his first day of school this month, nine-year-old Lionel was nervous and excited – a combination as old as time when September rolls around. Excited, because he wanted to know who his teacher would be for the fourth year. But her nerves weren’t about new classmates, harder lessons, or other typical adjustments to a new school year.

“I felt nervous because I didn’t want to have COVID-19,” Lionel wrote in a diary entry during his first week back to class. He described, on the page, things that had changed since last year. “We have to wear masks, some of my friends are gone and when we go to class we can’t go straight to our chair, we have to go in a circle, wash my hands and then go in our place.

The main target of his anger was wearing a mask during school hours, evident in all the capital letters: “I DON’T LIKE AT ALL !!! “

But other frustrations also arose: “I find it difficult to distance myself because I want to play with my friends.”

Lionel is one of over 1,000 children living in Toronto’s shelter system during the pandemic. Following a Star story in August, where families and children in shelters revealed their struggles with online learning this spring, The Star invited Lionel and several other children living in shelters to hold talks. diaries of their first week back in class.

Some wrote the entries themselves; shelter staff transcribed for some of the younger children as they dictated. The resulting entries reveal fears of getting sick and adjustments to the new rules, but also moments of joy and relief. Together, they provide an overview of the Toronto school system from the perspective of its students, as each adjusts to an atypical school year.

New rules and distancing

“School was… okay, because it wasn’t like I expected, but we graduated at age 11, so I guess it has its good and its bad sides,” Joela wrote. , a 14-year-old girl starting grade 10, in week one. .

“It’s different because before COVID it was a full day. We actually had lunch with friends and didn’t have to worry about who and what can make me sick. In the train, I have to sit alone. I only have one class now and every time I go to the bathroom I come back and have to sanitize my hands. I mean, I get it, but it’s so strict.

The strangest adjustment, for her, was having to do e-learning for part of the week and only attend school in person on certain days. “I only go on Wednesdays and Fridays and my other friends go on Tuesdays and Thursdays and some people just stay home and work online. I don’t like it because I miss seeing people, like people from my school, ”one reads in her diary.

Lionel, the nine-year-old, reflected on the new rules his teachers had explained regarding the use of the toilet. “My teacher told us that we can’t just use the toilet because we have certain hours to use it,” he wrote.

Marcelle, a 10-year-old girl starting in fifth grade, also pointed to the change. “The strangest thing is that we have to go to the bathroom at a certain time.”

“Now because of COVID we have to go through a certain stairwell, door and bathroom, even though the closest bathroom next to our classroom is upstairs, but we have to get off and we’re only allowed to use the bathroom twice and after recess, ”said 11-year-old Maria. The strangest change this year, in his opinion, was in the rules around recess distance. “The hills are spray painted white and each class has a numbered module. My class is pod number eight. “

Extract from Maria's diary, 11.

Online learning had driven her mad in the spring, Maria said, so being in class properly was more fun. Still, she has some hesitation. “I’m afraid someone is sick,” she wrote. Marcelle was suspicious too. “All 27 kids came to school today, so I was nervous because it’s Corona.”

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Arao, 7, noted that his teachers told them they couldn’t share their things with other children. “We have a lot of new rules, and I can’t see my brother in first grade,” his article read. “My friends feel the same as me, they don’t like changes. My friends and I always talk about the fact that we can’t wait until school is over. “

From Arao's diary, 7.

Classroom masks

A common frustration with many of them was keeping masks inside the school building. “This is the part that bothers me the most,” Joela wrote. “I put on my mask, I still have to distance myself socially, if I don’t, people still remind me that I’m a stupid person. Most of the time, I take my mask off because I can’t breathe or because I want to speak to someone properly.

One 10-year-old described the masks as simply difficult, while another said they “suffocate”. Marcelle wrote that wearing one all day felt like a prisoner. Her friends were annoyed that they had to wear them too, she said – they felt like they couldn’t breathe.

For some children, the mask requirement aroused mixed feelings. “Sometimes I like to wear my mask because I feel safe and don’t want germs or being sick,” said Arao, a sophomore. “Sometimes I don’t like wearing it because it’s hard to breathe.”

Others, meanwhile, kept their thoughts simple when it came to their new protective gear. “I feel safe,” wrote Madalena, 11. “I’m happy to be back to school.”

Extract from Madalena's diary, 11.

Moments of comfort and joy

As the diary entries revealed fears and anxieties about the new normal as week one wore on, they also revealed moments of familiarity and back-to-school joy: seeing friends they missed, have a delicious snack with their lunch or play sports with other children. .

“It feels good (to be back) because I wanted to see my friends in person and wanted to talk to them,” 9-year-old Lionel wrote. He also liked walking to school. “School is good. I’m happy, ”said Thana, 10.

Maria noted that she had found two four-leaf clovers outside, which she presented as a highlight – although she said she felt “dirty and tired” returning to the shelter.

Diary entries reveal fears of getting sick and adjustments to the new rules, but also bursts of joy and familiarity.

Anthony, 11, said he helped his friend in class and, in the best part of his day, played soccer. Arao celebrated because his class “watched a movie and had some snacks”. His biggest concern wasn’t with the pandemic at all, but waking up early. “I’m still tired now,” he wrote. Sahana, 10, said her main concern for the coming year is learning math.

Joela happily described a reunion with a friend, describing it as the best part of her day.

“We don’t have the same class and I miss her so, so much,” she wrote. Amidst all the changes implemented during school hours, Joela noted that returning to the shelter gave her a bit of normalcy. “It’s the only place that hasn’t changed so much,” she says.

But for Rania, 10, going back to school in person was what made things feel closer to what they were before the pandemic: “It’s kind of like being normal.

Victoria Gibson
Victoria Gibson is a Toronto reporter for The Star who covers affordable housing. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government as part of its local journalism initiative. Contact her by email: [email protected]



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