From cardboard dividers to repurposed rooms, how classrooms are adapting for back to school

By | September 2, 2020

Principal Michelle Jean-Paul is directing construction crews, assembling furniture and running up against the clock to open a new school amid a global pandemic.

As of Tuesday, Ecole Templeton, in Winnipeg’s Seven Oaks School Division, is still a construction site. 

Boxes line the hallways and crews are drilling away at the main stairwell, as the return of students inches closer. 

“Our teachers hadn’t had time in their classrooms, they hadn’t seen their furniture until last Wednesday, so trying to imagine how to create these safe, secure spaces that are still welcoming for students have been a bit of a challenge,” Jean-Paul said. “But we’re approaching it with excitement.”

The elementary school will open its doors to students for the first time on Sept. 8, with a host of new protocols, including physically distanced classrooms, masks for staff and students in Grade 4 and up and separate entrances and wings to keep cohorts, or groups of students, from intermingling.

“Cozy reading corners and things like that, communal materials, are all things they are kind of putting to the wayside for this year,” Jean-Paul said. “But still trying to find ways of having kids feel engaged and that sense of belonging. So the physical setup of our classrooms are very different.”

Inside Kathleen Kelly’s Grade 4-5 split classroom, she has cleared away her bean bag chairs and carpet area to make way for spaced desks.

The French immersion teacher is hand-making cardboard partitions with small cellophane windows, to give students an added barrier at their common tables. 

Grade 4/5 teacher Kathleen Kelly is making cardboard partitions for her students’ desks as an added layer of protection. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

She plans to have students decorate and personalize them over the first few days of school.

“Then I started thinking about well I can use it as a teaching tool,” Kelly said. “I can have kids put their spelled words or their multiplication tables on there.”

Despite her best efforts, students’ chairs at the shared tables are just barely a metre apart side-by-side. Still, chairs that face each other are not quite a metre, which is why she constructed the partitions as an added precaution.

Jean-Paul said the school is working to achieve physical distancing in classroom spaces as best they can and is looking into ordering plexiglass dividers for tables.

“Teachers are doing a great job of being innovative and working with what they have,” she said. “If we can keep the kids a little further apart then there’s less policing of those things that can occur and we can really focus on creating a positive classroom environment.”

Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg-based epidemiologist, said the partitions will likely be a helpful visual cue for students sharing a table space and act as an added layer of protection in blocking respiratory droplets.

“They can’t make the room bigger but they’re doing everything they can to keep themselves and their students safe,” she said. “[It] gives a bit of protection as a reminder to kind of keep to yourself within this space and maybe not have their hands on the shared surface area. This also might avoid children kind of reaching across from each other.”

Carr said masks, proper hand hygiene, and good ventilation in the classroom will be additional key measures to keep people safe.

In Kelly’s classroom, each student will also have a small basket of school supplies zip-tied to their chairs, so no one is sharing materials like pencils and markers.

Inside a Grade 4 and 5 classroom at Ecole Templeton. Teacher Kathleen Kelly has created partitions for desks to assist with keeping kids apart. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

And while she is not planning any specific lessons around COVID-19 procedures, there will be a lot to go over with students, including how to properly wear and remove a mask. Mental health will also be a priority, Kelly said.

“The first month is going to be a lot on community building, anxiety, self-regulation because obviously we all went through a traumatizing event and the kids might feel apprehensive to come back.”

Music room repurposed for more class space

One way the school is capitalizing on space is repurposing a large music room for kindergarten students.

It has an additional class of kindergarten students this year and with music courses on hold during COVID-19, it will give the younger students extra space to spread and out play.

Desks and furniture in the classroom have also been configured to create separate areas for students to play and learn.

Each classroom in the school is equipped with a sink for hand washing. Every time a student moves between classrooms or activities, they will wash their hands, Jean-Paul said.

Lunch will take place at students’ desks. Meanwhile, recess, entering and exiting the school at the end of the day will be staggered to avoid potential crowding in hallways.

Students will receive a basket of school supplies attached to their chair so they are not sharing items. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Parents will drop off and pick up their children in designated areas outside and will not be permitted to walk their kids into the school, Jean-Paul said.

Despite the shiny new gym, phys-ed classes will be held outdoors as long as the weather permits.

Seven Oaks School Division will be centralizing remote learning for students who are immunocompromised and not able to attend classes during the pandemic, she explained.

Jean-Paul said opening a new school, on top of COVID-19 and the changes that brings, has been a challenge but she is excited to welcome students. 

For parents who are feeling apprehensive, she encourages them to reach out to their child’s school leadership.

“We’ll just do our very best to alleviate any of those concerns and create a safe and welcoming start to the school year,” she said. 

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