Mix of excitement, anxiety on 1st day of high school for West Kildonan Grade 9 students

Grade 9 students entering the halls of Winnipeg’s West Kildonan Collegiate were greeted by mask-wearing older students Wednesday, ready to welcome them on their first day of high school. 

Grade 12 student Mitzi Ponce was among those helping to welcome the new students at West Kildonan.

“This is the first time for everybody in the middle of a pandemic, so I’m not really sure how to show the ropes yet or tell about the ropes, but I’ll do my best to guide everyone as much as I can,” she said.

Fellow Grade 12 student Jordan Dearsley also helped welcome the new students.

This year, there will be twice as many students as there were last school year, when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions meant Dearsley and her classmates alternated between days when they were in class and days when they learned at home.

Schools in Winnipeg, along with those in some other Manitoba school divisions, ended the 2020-21 school year in remote learning.

“I feel like I can’t even remember being in full classes, so it’s a big adjustment,” said Dearsley. “It’s almost like we’re coming to high school for the first time too.”

Tammy Harder is a teacher at West Kildonan Collegiate. She’s thrilled to see students in person again. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

Tammy Harder, who teaches at West Kildonan, says she’s thrilled to welcome new students.

“They’re walking in like little deer in the headlights. They are just nervous little ones. It’s so nice to say good morning, help them get to their class and be there for them,” she said.

She’s also excited to have the students she knows back in the classroom.

“Even driving here, seeing kids at bus stops, it brought little butterflies in my belly to have them all back,” she said.  

“There is going to be kids here in Grade 10 who haven’t seen some of their friends in a year and a half.”

What will graduation look like?

Older students, who have been through what Harder calls a “Ping-Pong” of in-school and remote learning, are worried the return to the classroom may not last the entire school year.

Dearsley is looking forward to her graduation day, but says she doesn’t have high expectations that the school year will continue uninterrupted. 

“There’s a kind of feeling amongst Grade 12s where we’re not holding our breath,” she said.

“We’re all just kind of waiting to see what will happen because we watched two years get really disappointed.”

Grade 11 student M.J. Dela Cruz echoes that.

“I’m excited and expecting a lot,” he said, but acknowledges that “with the pandemic, nothing is guaranteed.”

“I just want to see all my friends again and live out my high school experience.”

A group of Grade 11 and 12 students at West Kildonan Collegiate meet before the start of classes on Wednesday. They’re part of a mentorship group that will help support new Grade 9 students. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

Ponce says she’s dreaming of parties and ceremonies that aren’t impeded by pandemic restrictions.

“I’m crossing my fingers. I’m hoping I’ll be able to graduate without masks on, be able to go to a grad party and just celebrate with my friends,” she said.

Harder says she’s expecting an uptick in COVID-19 cases now that children are back in school, but wants parents to know that staff are deeply committed to keeping students healthy.

“We absolutely hope that everybody is safe. I did not like the Ping-Pong of in-class/remote [learning] and I really hope that doesn’t happen again, because in the end I want to be here and I want my students with me.”

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