On one side of the chain-link fence separating Glenelm School from the street, nervous elementary students fidgeted with their masks and bulky backpacks on the playground as they waited to meet new teachers and friends in lines.
On the other side, parents on the sidewalk — among them, Joisy Fernandez — peeked through the grey diamonds with anxieties of their own.
"I wish I could go in there and just stand next to her and say, ‘It will be OK,’" said Fernandez, who dropped off her daughter Natalie for the first day of Grade 5 on Wednesday morning. "As tough as it is on us, we have to show them that (a safe school year) is possible."
Glenelm, a K-6 building at 96 Carmen Ave., has kept its pandemic policy for drop-offs intact this year to prevent congestion on the playground. Parents are discouraged from entering both the Winnipeg school's grounds and building.
Inside the building, red arrows are taped onto hallway walls to encourage distancing between directional flows, and student desks are spaced one metre apart. The library is a homeroom, and the gymnasium has been converted into two classrooms for older pupils.
This was not the back-to-school season students, school staff or families had hoped for, but Fernandez, who work as a health-care aide, said there is widespread acceptance now — in comparison with the shock many felt last year — this could become standard practice.
An imminent COVID-19 fourth wave and infectious variants have school communities on edge as 2021-22 gets underway. At the same time, Manitoba's summer announcement that school employees will need to be fully immunized to avoid frequent testing has provided comfort for apprehensive guardians.
It did for Chandra Mayor — at least, until she found out on the eve before her granddaughter was to start Grade 4 at Mulvey School that not all principals were able to confirm staff vaccination status before students returned, owing to delayed provincial guidance on the matter.
“My child would be safer if I homeschooled her in a casino than she is in her elementary school ‐ because everyone is double–vaccinated there, and that is not necessarily true at her school.” – Chandra Mayor
When the new restrictions were announced, officials indicated educators would be required to have received one dose by Sept. 7, a follow-up shot two weeks prior to Oct. 31, and provide proof of status to avoid ongoing testing.
The Winnipeg School Division, in which Glenelm and Mulvey are located, indicated Wednesday details are being sorted out and schools will be informed of processes in the coming days.
"As a parent, I’m required to abide by the province’s timelines in terms of schooling — I have to send her back on Sept. 8. I just don’t understand why (provincial officials) also don’t have to be accountable to their own timelines. It’s not like this is the first kick at the COVID can," said Mayor, noting families had anticipated vaccine checks and testing would be in place before children returned to classes.
"My child would be safer if I homeschooled her in a casino than she is in her elementary school — because everyone is double-vaccinated there, and that is not necessarily true at her school."
In a statement, a provincial spokesperson said the school boards association released guidance regarding proof of vaccination procedures Tuesday, and guidance for mandatory testing will be released "shortly."
Protocols around immunization status aside, one key thing that has changed at Glenelm is mask-wearing will be required both inside and outside for all of the approximately 130 students enrolled, said principal Shane Fox.
Last year, only pupils in Grade 4 and up had to wear face coverings. The updated measure has been enacted in recognition of the risk the delta variant poses to youth, particularly students under 12 who are not yet eligible for a vaccine.
Fox said mask breaks will occur during outdoor phys-ed when students are two metres apart, and when they eat lunch at their desks with their cohorts.
Every Glenelm class, which range in size from 24 to 28 students, is a cohort and will have designated recesses.
"I’m just hopeful we can stay a full year with everyone in school because I know there’s a lot of learning that needs to take place," Fox said, amid an interview on the playground — during which he paused several times to welcome familiar faces back to school — before the first bell of the day rang.
Grade 5 student Natalie said this year should be easier than last because she knows what to expect. "It's going to be good — hopefully," said the 10-year-old.
Grade 12 student Oluwatinufemi Tope-Awofeko echoed that optimism, after wrapping up orientation at Fort Richmond Collegiate.
The 16-year-old said she was ecstatic to both reconnect with friends she had not seen since the initial school closures in 2020 and see group tables — instead of individual desks — set-up in her chemistry class.
"I was so excited… It’s a small thing that I took for granted before," said Oluwatinufemi, noting strict distancing at school was in effect before the spring remote learning period.
"Last time I was at school, people did not want to be here. Everyone wanted to go home because the (COVID-19) cases were really high," she said. "But today, people looked excited. A lot of people were outside and talking with their friends and I was just feeding off that energy."
Despite continued public health protocols around masking and sanitizing, even though she is fully immunized, the prospect of resuming cross country athletics, earth club and student council meetings in-person had the senior beaming.
While there are many new pandemic traditions, old ones from the pre-COVID-19 era, such as picking out a back-to-school outfit, remain.
Oluwatinufemi paired a green button-down and chunky chain necklaces with a neutral black mask for her first day of senior year.
To kick-off the fifth grade, Natalie selected a yellow shirt and pink sweater. A mask with hearts in shades of blue, green, and pink tied her colourful outfit together.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.