TORONTO — Teachers and staff wearing neon vests, masks, and in some cases face shields, greeted children and parents as they walked up to Portage Trail Community School in a scene seen across Toronto on Tuesday morning.
Staff members would ensure the kids were assessed for COVID-19, in some cases scanning a QR code on the student or parent's phone, before sending them to a circle painted on the ground for their cohort before they'd be admitted to the building one group at a time.
"It sucks," said 10-year-old Sarai Jones-York, one of the students returning to Portage Trail, through her mask.
"She's a hugaholic and she can't hug anybody," said her mother Andrea Jones with a laugh. "So that for her is not a good thing."
The Toronto District School Board began reopening its elementary schools on Tuesday. Canada's largest school board decided to stagger the return of classes by grade to help children get used to the new safety protocols in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.
TDSB's model has different grades come back to school on different days, with specifics varying by school. At Portage Trail, a K-8 school, that meant senior kindergarten, Grade 4, and Grade 8 as well as special education classes.
"I think the school is ready, I think most of our schools are," said Alexander Brown, chair of the TDSB, who was on hand at Portage Trail. "There are still some that over the next week or so are going to have to make some adjustments as we move forward."
Brown said that some of those adjustments include reorganizing class sizes as more parents opt to have their children return to online learning. TDSB announced on Monday that it was pushing back the opening of its virtual school to Sept. 22 as enrolment for the program jumped from 66,000 students to more than 72,000 in the past week.
That's not an option for everyone, however.
"For me, I tried the summer school option for my kids and I realized my son needs a little bit more help," said Loretta Thomas as she dropped her kids off. "Good luck to you if you're working from home and you're trying to help your kid navigate through the system."
Most students had mixed feelings about returning to in-class learning beyond first-day-of-school jitters.
"It's too much. It's nerve wracking," said Xavier Blake, who's entering Grade 8. "I'd rather not stay at home. I don't like working on the computer, I like doing it one-on-one with a teacher. I'd rather come to school."
Blake, who turned 13 on Tuesday, said his biggest concern was catching the coronavirus at school.
The board has confirmed there are seven active confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff at seven of its schools. The board says the cases were confirmed on Monday, the day before the first day of classes.
The schools, which remain open, include Don Mills Middle School, Bloordale Middle School, Charles G. Fraser Junior Public School, Earl Haig Secondary School, Brookhaven Public School, York Mills Collegiate Institute and the School of Experiential Education.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2020.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press