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Yukon students and teachers return to classrooms

Students in the territory are the first across the country to return to school
Parents mingle outside of Whitehorse Elementary School as students enter for their second day of a new school year in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Not even COVID-19 could slow down the usual back-to-school excitement and nerves as most Yukon children returned to school Aug. 20.

Five-year-old Soanne, being dropped off at the door with a shiny pink backpack, said she was excited to start Grade 1. In a quieter voice, she admitted to being a little scared too, but her mother said that was probably mostly the usual back-to-school nerves rather than COVID-19 worry.

“We’re feeling good,” said Sophie Huguet, Soanne’s mother. “There are a lot of new rules, they told us how it will work, and after all these months it is great to see our kids going back to school again. I think the school worked hard to do something safe for parents, kids and teachers.”

While some parents have expressed concerns about half-day classes for high school students or chose to homeschool this year, other parents waving goodbye at École Émilie Tremblay said they were feeling comfortable with the current plans.

“I think they’ve done as well as they can, considering the circumstances. For us it was the normal worries of the parting and the anxiety, leaving parents behind,” said Justin Grenier, who has a daughter starting junior kindergarten for the first time this year.

Both Grenier and fellow parent Frederic Trussart said that at least for now, they were more concerned about how prevention measures will change life in the school than the risk of COVID-19 or a sick day shortage.

Grenier said while the hand-washing and sanitation plans are positive, he is concerned about what kind of products are being used in the classroom.

“They can’t sing in school. That’s one of the new measures. Things like that have me worried a bit. What are we doing to our school system?” Trussart said. “Some of the measures will stay, and things like washing your hands I hope will stay, but the social distancing can have an impact on social development. I see that as very sad.”

“I trust the school, I think they are going to do a good job and I think they are very well intentioned. The kids are resilient, they will be fine, but I think maybe I’m sadder than they are,” he said.

The majority of Whitehorse, Dawson, Carmacks and Teslin students returned to school on Aug. 20, while school in Pelly Crossing returned on Aug. 19. Across the country, Yukon students are the first to start the school year.

“As the first in the country to start the school year we have an opportunity to show how well we can do this and how well we can work together,” said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley.

“The kids are ready for this. We will all learn as we go and adapt and modify plans, and we will solve problems together,” he said.

Many changes have been made this year to adapt schools to the reality of COVID-19.

Masks are not mandatory, but recommended for students age 10 and older in situations where distancing is not possible. Grade 8 and 9 students will attend full-day class, while Grade 10, 11 and 12 students will attend half-day classes.

All of those plans are made with the best case scenarios in mind, but Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Annette King said she’ll be watching carefully to make sure no students are being left behind this year.

Prior to the pandemic, King’s office had 74 outstanding cases being resolved with the schools. She said even during a pandemic, challenges for kids with disabilities, learning differences or behavioural issues don’t disappear.

While school can add stress to the lives of parents and children, it can also provide focus and a sense of purpose in addition to crucial support systems like peers, teachers and coaches.

“The department right now is saying a lot of what I want to hear,” said King, who noted that issues like internet access, technology, study space for half-day students and individual learning plans have been addressed so far.

“The COVID-19 situation is creating new obstacles families haven’t experienced before, and it is intensifying problems that already exist,” she said. “We’re concerned about those kids that are already dealing with struggles with school and now they’re going back with a new level of anxiety from their parents from their teachers. And, you know, school is already hard. Imagine how hard it is for them right now.”

Contact Haley Ritchie at