Nepean High School Corner: Our return to classrooms: What’s different this time?

By Nicholas Ficara

Across Ontario, classes are returning to an in-person learning model after completing a few weeks of online school. I spoke with some Nepean High School students to better understand their opinions and to get an understanding of how they are coping with this latest shift. 

After interviews, the consensus was clear: we were not ready to shift to in-person learning. Many kids were eager to share their thoughts on this divisive issue, and they had decisive opinions.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, students have switched between online classes and in-person classes. So what’s different this time? According to a letter sent to all faculty of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), students have each been given three-ply cotton masks, while teachers have been given non-fit-tested N95 masks. 

In addition, the Ontario government will soon provide rapid antigen tests for students and staff in public elementary and secondary schools. The OCDSB will also be receiving an additional 81 standalone HEPA filter units, in addition to the 2,300 units already in place. Furthermore, several tighter protocols have been put in place, including stricter class and lunch cohorting and elevated cleaning requirements—but schools will now only report COVID-19 cases once 30 per cent of the school’s population is absent.

Overwhelmingly, students do not consider a reopening at this time to be the best course of action. Many would have preferred a reopening at the end of the semester, a more natural breakpoint in our learning. This would have given us a more consistent learning environment for the rest of the semester. Another pain point for students is the case reporting. Most students reported feeling uncomfortable not knowing about cases until the 30 per cent threshold is reached.

Some of the students interviewed were among the unlucky few that were in isolation. They provided interesting insights into the online learning experience. Their experience was clear: learning online while others were in person was simply not as “rich” of an experience, and teachers couldn’t be expected to manage two models of classroom learning at the same time. While some teachers have given students the option to stay home and learn remotely through live meetings, most are not offering an equal level of integration.

In light of these conditions, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has made the decision to freeze grades, so they cannot be negatively impacted by online learning. Some students are supportive of grade freezing in the OCDSB as well. They claim that when presented with the option of going to school or staying home and opting to learn online, they may feel forced to pick academics over health; grade freezing could make students more inclined to choose the safer option.

Every student I spoke to had either known someone who was infected or they were infected by the virus themselves. This concerning commonality stands in sharp contrast from the previous reopenings, where infections were few and far between. These personal anecdotes created a stronger sense of caution for students.

Ultimately, students are largely unhappy about these changes and will support a grade freeze. While this situation is unfortunately an unpleasant one, we, the students, are all hopeful for a cheerier second semester.

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