It’s a new normal for Esterhazy High School this fall due to Covid-19 Esterhazy High School has started the first week back in September by having a quarter of the students in each day of the week to help them transition back while also allowing for time to focus on the new Covid-19 health and safety protocol.
“All three schools in the area—us, PJ Gillen, and Stockholm—broke our schools into four groups,” said Esterhazy High School Principal Gord Erhardt. “We have them in quarters and they’re coming in one day each this week just to help ease everything in. Some kids are a little nervous about returning to school with Covid-19 and we’re kind of focussing on connecting with the kids right now because we haven’t seen them in six months.
“We’re doing a check-in just to see how these kids are doing and we’re training them on Covid-19 and the safe use of PPE and all the rules that go on for it. In the afternoon, we’re easing them into it with some classes for the kids. It’s not the hectic gong show it usually is when everyone comes in at once and that’s been nice. It’s a little more personal for the kids, any given room might only have five to 10 kids or less. That’s nice to be with a small group of kids for the teachers.”
With less kids in the first week at Esterhazy High School, Vice-Principal Tracy Huckell has found that not only has it helped for implementing the new guidelines, but it has allowed students and staff to focus on some of the mental health challenges Covid-19 has caused.
“I think that the staggered starts have helped this week with timetable changes and learning new procedures,” said Huckell. “It’s been really helpful to have some time to connect with the kids after six months. It’s been absolutely awesome having the kids back. Connecting with others and smiling and laughing has been great.
“Some of the things we’ve been chatting to them about is what’s gone well for them over the last six months and what are some of the challenges they’ve had to deal with and how are they feeling about coming back to school and how can we help them feel better about it because there is some anxiety. Everybody’s situation is a little different. We’ve explained to the kids that following all the procedures and these new rules just shows care and respect for others.”
Erhardt says for the most part the students understand how crucial it is to follow the new rules to protect each other and the community.
“We’re grade six to 12 and we’re explaining to them that we have very few barriers in a school setting and it’s hard to safely social distance in a school setting so we’ve got to use masks and hand sanitizer,” said Erhardt. “They understand that we’ve got to do all these things to protect the more vulnerable people in our school. We do have kids that are immunocompromised and also people in the community. The kids understand the importance of the cohorts. If we can’t keep physical distance within the school then we can at least keep the groupings of the cohorts together. It’s hard for some of the kids who have friends in a grade above or below.”
With students in cohorts this year, Huckell thinks that’s one of the biggest challenges for them with understanding that they need to be cautious of who they’re around and can’t interact in school with everybody they normally would.
“The cohorts are probably the biggest change for the kids, beyond wearing the masks,” said Huckell. “Intermingling across grades with group activities we just aren’t able to do and they don’t have lockers because they must remain in their cohort areas so they can’t mingle in the hall like they’re used to. That’s a big change, high school kids like to hang and they can’t hang like that anymore.”
With remote learning an option to all students this year, Erhardt was surprised to see how little of an impact it had on Esterhazy High School.
“We’ve lost maybe 15 students to remote learning,” said Erhardt. “Which isn’t bad, I’ve heard it’s been a lot worse in other schools. Some of those kids have health issues or are kids in a family that has someone with health issues. Naturally in those situations parents are opting to keep their kids at home to see which way this pandemic goes here. It’s not too bad losing 15 kids across seven grades, numbers are more or less the same.”
The Covid-19 pandemic posed a total unknown for schools as they return, and Erhardt says with how fluid the situation is, at times it has felt like the adjustments are constant.
“I think that things weren’t exactly firmed up from the ministry on down so there was kind of a scramble at the end,” said Erhardt. “Sometimes it feels like we’ve been building the plane here while it’s still flying. Sometimes the directions change once or twice and you’ve kind of just got to roll with the punches, but I think we’ve got it figured out now and we’re going in the right direction.”
Having only a fraction of the students in each day has allowed for easier problem solving in the moment when new situations arise, says Huckell.
“We had all these procedures laid out, but now we get to actually follow them with the kids and we can problem solve as things come up,” said Huckell. “When something does come up we can look at it and say, ‘what would be the procedure for this type of situation?’ Because you can’t think of everything ahead of time so these small groups have helped us kind of think of the things that would have come up when we have everybody back.”
The real test is when all the students return to the school together says Erhardt, but the first week has been good for preparation and gone as well as could have been expected.
“I think it’s gone smoothly,” said Erhardt. “I guess the real test is when everybody shows up at once. We’re just going to have to make sure everyone understands the situation. We have a bunch of rules in place, the kids are in cohorts, we’ve got staggered exits and transitions, and we’ll see how that all goes when everybody is here. We’ve done a couple trial runs this week and it seems quite smooth, but that’s only with 25 per cent in the building.”