Mixed Feelings as Yukon Schools Reopen

Plastic shower curtains hung between desks with the help of some fishing line, duct tape and paper clips is just one of the things some Yukon teachers did before their school reopened to students.

Elijah Smith Elementary School in Whitehorse was among one of the first schools to open in the country on Aug. 20.

“It’s been pretty smooth so far,” the school’s principal Jeff Cressman said regarding the reopening. “We were pleasantly surprised … we didn’t know how it was going to go.”

Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley told media last month that the territory was in a good position for schools to reopen.

As of Sept. 1, Yukon currently has no active cases of COVID-19, with its 15th case recently recovered.

“As (one of) the first in the country to start the school year, we also have an opportunity to show how well we can do this and how well we can work together,” Hanley said. “We will all learn as we go and adapt and modify plans.”

Ted Hupe, president of the Yukon Teachers’ Association says the overall feeling among their membership is “wide and varied.”

“Some staff are anxious that when COVID does hit the Yukon there will be nothing to really stop it or control it in the schools,” Hupe stated in an email to The Manitoba Teachers’ Society. “(The) biggest thing is that physical distancing is practically impossible in most schools.”

Hupe said school principals have been doing most of the heavy lifting from creating operational plans to putting up signage. He added suppliers are concerned about the potential of running out of cleaning supplies as early as October. They also don’t have enough substitute teachers on hand.

“If we are to keep everyone safe by staying home even if we get slightly sick, we will be hit hard this fall with the lack of humans in front of students,” Hupe said.

It will also be important for school staff to watch for signs of mental health strain as they are already seeing some of that in Yukon.

“Be prepared to look out for your vulnerable teachers,” he said. “Many accommodations will be needed in order to keep as many on the job as possible.”

Cressman said they had their staff come in beforehand to get familiar with their school’s reopening plan.

“There’s been lots of emails sent back and forth over the summer preparing for the first day of school,” he said. “We worked really hard as a staff to prepare ourselves … just trying to make school as normal as possible in these times.”

Since their school switched to online learning in March, Cressman said teachers were given time to prepare their classrooms. The kindergarten to Grade 7 school, which includes around 260 students, made changes to make way for smaller class sizes. For instance, their kindergarten classrooms have 18 students, Grades 1-3 have 22 and Grades 4-7 have 25.

Despite smaller class sizes, Cressman says proper physical distancing is a challenge in every school.

“You’re never going to keep students, especially in elementary school, six feet apart 24/7,” he said. “If we’re expecting to do that we’re not living in reality.”

To make the most of their Grade 3 classrooms, two teachers decided to set up plastic shower curtains around the desks so students could use other parts of the classroom for learning. Cressman says so far the shower curtains are working.

“None of them have fallen down yet,” he said. “Kids are staying away from them and they’re getting cleaned everyday.”

The school also has sanitation stations at each entrance, every classroom has a sink for handwashing and students in each classroom are divided into groups of four or five students. The student groups are being named after animals found in Yukon including porcupines, lynx, ravens, caribous and wolves.

“The idea is that every classroom has become its own bubble and they don’t interact with another bubble.”

Cressman said if he had any advice for schools during this time, it’s be prepared to make changes on the fly and “be solid” in your school’s reopening plan. He would also encourage teachers to ask their school administration any questions they may have as well as be wiling to get creative and share ideas. Cressman said they’ve placed a whiteboard in their school so staff can share ideas.

Although things are going smoothly so far, he said with the weather getting colder, having phys-ed outdoors as well as staggering lunch and recess times will become a challenge.

He’s also hoping they will be able to get through the school year without having to stop face-to-face learning.

“As long as we keep the kids in mind through all of this we’re not going to make a mistake.”