Back to School 2020 Full of Angst and Uncertainty

by Ian Howarth | Author, SchoolAdvice Consultant  | [email protected]

Ian Howarth

Sphector of COVID-19 Casts Big Shadow on New School Year

As a first year teacher in 1975, I had more than my share of pre-back-to-school anxiety in the weeks leading up to the start of school. Fresh out of the McGill Faculty of Education’s one-year Diploma in Education Program, I had a focus in social studies and English. In the waning weeks of summer – about two weeks before the beginning of the ‘75-’76 school year – I still didn’t have a job offer. Then, fortuitously, I had a late summer interview with the vice-principal of John Rennie High School on the West Island of Montreal. Even more fortuitously, that vice-principal happened to be my former history teacher at another West Island high school where I graduated in 1968. Fortunately, he remembered me as a good student (to be honest, I wasn’t good academically, just average.) He offered me a job after about five minutes of casual talk about the good ol’ days. He then told me the job was teaching grade 7 & 8 math and general science. “Don’t worry,” he told me after I admitted with full disclosure that my “major” was in  English and social studies. “All you have to do is stay a couple of days ahead of the students.” For the few remaining days before school, my anxiety grew more and more burdensome. The night before my teaching debut, I hardly slept.

Returning to school with corona virus

I harken back to those days to draw something of a parallel between that time and the last few weeks for parents, teachers and students after the Quebec government announced in June that, despite the coronavirus pandemic, elementary and high schools in the province would be open for business. As that time drew closer, I can only imagine the degree of anticipatory angst present amongst those affected by the government’s decision. So, I decided to try and take the pulse of some parents and teachers in my community. I spoke to two high school teachers and three parents, all of whom I know, some casually, others as neighbours, and one parent recently appointed as a commissioner with the Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB), which administers a large geographical area from Verdun to off-island Vaudreuil with about 20,000 students. I spoke to them before school started (for most, it was back to classes by September 4) and after the first few days back after almost six months at home. There was relief, frayed nerves, unanswered questions, rumours, legions of emails, consultation, aggravation,tears and a lot of patience.

I interviewed my neighbours Nadia Lawand and husband Jason Bolanis, parents of four children aged 2-9, two of each gender. Three of their offspring were back to school last week. The other parent, Allison Saunders, has two boys in high school; Julian for his first year, and 15-year-old Ben who is headed into grade 10.

Both of the teachers I spoke to are experienced and involved in their schools. At Westwood Senior High School in Hudson, Catherine Hogan, who this year begins her 20th year with the LBPSB, teaches grade 11 English and heads up the student life program. Michael  Wadden is in his 11th year of teaching and is a kind of history specialist, tasked with guiding students at Macdonald High School in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue through the all-important Grade 10 Quebec and Canadian history course.

Here are their stories…so far:

Nadia Lawand and Jason Bolanis

It’s a full house in the modest 3-bedroom bungalow in suburban Pointe-Claire where Jason Bolanis and Nadia Lawwand have mostly been sequestered since the middle of last March when schools across Canada screeched to a grinding halt. The normally busy household with a full extra-curricular agenda was suddenly thrown together not in the family van for drop-offs to various activities, but instead the limited confines of their home. “Let’s just say we had our share of meltdowns,” Nadia told me when I asked how the last four months had been at home. Her oldest daughter Bella has at least recently been able to resume her skating lessons, but for the younger ones it’s been a long haul despite the online learning opportunities the school board provided for a portion of the spring. “We debated the idea of homeschooling, but with four kids it would be hard. It’s been difficult since last March,” she admitted. “They’re young and healthy and they need to go back to school.” That decision comes with some collateral damage. Nadia’s mother is immune-compromised and the carefully constructed family bubble of the past months is for at least the first few weeks of school on hold. 

Gifted children demonstrate intense focus on topics of interest.

It was a family affair for the Bolanis-Lawand family who, except for the youngest Tessa, were back to St. John Fisher Junior School last week. From left is Bella, Sonny, Tess and Beau.

As the day of her 9-year-old daughter’s first day of grade 4 at St. John Fisher Junior School school approached, her mother knew things were returning to some sense of normalcy when Bella asked her for some back to school wardrobe advice. With the Quebec government’s regulations in mind, Nadia made sure the masks her children were going to use were worn as a kind of mask necklace (indicative of the wear and tear inflicted by children on clothing and accessories, one mask necklace needed repairs after the first day back.) 


With three children in the same school and with 2 year-old Tessa in tow, the Bolanis-Lawand family was out in full force last Thursday, the first full-day back. “The school was super-organized,” Jason said. “All the teachers, aides and front office administration were all out front to guide the kids in. Normally parents could accompany their child inside school property or even inside the school,” he explained. “But this year, all parents were on the outside looking in.” Teachers at St. John Fisher had taken extraordinary measures to make sure their students would recognize them by sending each home two side-by-side photos of themselves, one wearing a mask and one without. Both parents had their kids debriefed on the expectations of the school as far as COVID-19 protocols were concerned, even practicing mask-wearing in the weeks before school started. Son Beau had a few problems breathing with his mask on, but as a first year Kindergarten student, a mask is not a health priority. “He knows when to wear it,” said his mom. “They all do. Some kids wore their masks, but none of my children are really required to have masks under the government’s guidelines (Quebec states that students in grade 5 and up are required to wear masks in “common areas.”) The biggest “setback” of the day happened in one of her children’s classes when a student coughed – but not into his elbow as is the recommended procedure.


Jason, an entrepreneur videographer, has been back in action for about two months trying to build up and reset his clientele. “It (the business) has had its peaks and valleys,” he explained. “But there are people who are not going into the office anymore and want to increase their online presence. There’s still, however, some uncertainty about investing in new projects.” For Nadia, it’s home alone…almost. Last Thursday was her first day without any kids buzzing around in boredom. With young Tessa occasionally in daycare, she finally had time to check out all those unanswered emails and some bills that had escaped scrutiny. The silence was almost deafening.


Allison Saunders and Dante Cicchetti

As a Digital Content Strategist at Concordia University, Allison Saunders knows her way around the education world. And as the daughter of a former teacher and administrator of the LBPSB, she’s well familiar with the machinations of the education bureaucracy. So her frustration in dealing with two school boards is understandable. That frustration culminated in the long wait to straighten out her 15 year-old son Ben’s schedule at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. It was only the day before his return to school that his grouping for his grade 10 class was finalized. Royal West Academy, which is run by the English Montreal School Board, was more efficient: her younger son Julian knew his schedule well in advance of his start to his first year of high school. “I was getting emails from St. Thomas that said we’d be getting another email. Then they (St. Thomas) switched from Fusion to Mosaic, a new system that contains student information and scheduling. It was very frustrating,” she explained. 

Gifted children demonstrate intense focus on topics of interest.
Ben Cicchetti, 15, was ready for his first day back at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire last week. Despite some initial scheduling issues, the grade 10 student had a smooth day back after almost six months.

Gifted children demonstrate intense focus on topics of interest.
Julian Cicchetti started his first year of high school at Royal West Academy last week.

Her anxiety is understandable, exacerbated by the recent demonstrations in the US with eyes focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. Allison was recently appointed to the Council of Commissioners (CoC) of the LBPSB, one of two new additions to the LBPSB CoC made in the wake of a disturbing blackface viral video by two John Rennie students. As one of two Black commissioners (the other recent appointee is media personality and entrepreneur Malek Shaheed) she is also a part of the school board’s task force on equity and inclusivity headed up by assistant McGill University professor Dr. Myrna Lashley that the board set up in July to address racism and discrimination within the LBPSB. For Allison and her husband Dante Cicchetti, back to school is more than about schedules and COVID-19 protocols. “It’s important that we show our sons the power they have to be a part of the change but also the responsibility that comes with it,” she explained. “But we show by doing.” The news in the US has been filled with ugly images and injustice, so she, her husband and two sons have been focused on social justice as well as the back-to-school contract between school, student and government.

At ground zero, her family is concerned with their family bubble as they keep in mind her father who is close to his mid-70s. “”We’re conscious and mindful of that,” Allison said. “Now that the boys are back to school, we have to be even more careful with our family bubble. We’re keeping it small and manageable.” That same approach could also apply to son Ben’s schedule at St. Thomas, which, like the grade 11s, is one day in school, followed by one day of online learning. At Royal West, all grade 7 students have their own area and there is no travelling to other classrooms for options like music or art; the option teachers come to the students. At St. Thomas Secondary III-V (grades 9-11) are allowed off campus at lunch hour, much to the chagrin of clients of the nearby StatCare Health Clinic and shopping plaza, who had more than five months of relative peace and quiet with no students lined up at the plaza’s popular depanneur where for some teens lunch is a bag of chips and a Coke.

Ben and Julian have some funky-coloured masks to wear, some in denim and camo to go along with ones Ben ordered from an online mask entrepreneur who knows adolescents like to make a statement with their masks-as-accessories tastes. Working from home with just she and her husband, Allsion is just glad her sons are back to learning. “It’s a different vibe now,” she said. “Fewer interruptions and now the kids have got some different stories to tell. Things were getting a bit stale over the months of confinement.”

Catherine Hogan-teacher- Westwood Senior High School-Hudson

It was a long first day at school for both of Catherine Hogan’s two daughters last week – and their mother. Oldest daughter Grace didn’t get much sleep the night before she started her first day in high school as the anticipatory anxiety had caught up with her a few days before. It took some concentrated reassurance from her mother before she settled down for the night. The younger one, Tess, was already off at 7 am with her carpool to the Vanguard School in St. Laurent, also a first for her. Catherine, meanwhile, was looking a very full first day at Westwood under its COVID-19 protocols. The grade 11 students she teaches English must also have shared some of the same anxiety, though as teenagers they probably weren’t about to admit it. Without the usual first day assemblies, students from grade 9-11 headed towards their area of the school. There would be no mixing of the grades, at least not in the school. Access to the three floors were blocked off to prevent any cross-grade mingling. At recess and lunch, the lines of socially-distanced mingling were soon blurred. “There was very little social distancing,” Catherine later shared. “You kind of forgot that covid exists.” There are zones outside for grades but maintaining that was an impossible challenge for teachers as students found their friends from other class bubbles, some heading off to the Village of Hudson to boost the caloric factor of the lunch their parents had provided. Catherine’s fellow teachers jokingly were speculating how long it might take for some kind of covid outbreak to occur given the amount of close contact the students had. And it was just the early days of the school year!

Tess (left) and Grace headed off to school last week.

Teacher / mother Catherine Hogan captured this quick moment before both her daughters  Tess (left) and Grace headed off to school last week.

Catherine has, in her almost 20 years of teaching, been involved in student life and coaching. Her teaching load includes a class in Student Leadership, often the basis for the student’s council and the organization of social activities. For now there will be no fall extra-curricular sports. “Our education minister Roberge is being pretty optimistic,” Catherine said of the minister’s recent announcement that extra-curricular activities would resume in mid-September. In other years, she’s coached girls’ soccer but as of now, the GMAA, which governs and organizes school sports, has not offered up any schedules for fall sports.

For the first few days of class, she sometimes wore a mask, other times in larger rooms she struggled to be heard, her voice muffled by her mask. So, like her students the mask became a situational tool. Her grade 10 and 11 classes are divided into groups, so class sizes are an unusually ideal 15 per class. “I stressed to my grade 11 classes the need to be organized this year, that there won’t be the same teacher-guided learning every day” said Catherine who is sometimes called on as an educational pundit on Montreal AM talk radio station CJAD. “You can talk to the older students that way. They get it. They know how pivotal this year is for them.”

At the end of that first day, she was a happy parent as both Grace and Tess reported that they had had a good day. “They needed to be back to school,” Catherine told me. “We’re all happy to be back and not online every day.”


Michael Wadden-teacher-Macdonald High School-Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue 

Back to school for Mike Wadden was a different ball game compared to the other 52 elementary and high schools in the LBPSB. Construction on the 100-year-old Macdonald High School was held up by covid this summer and has run into the beginning of the new school year. The building on the campus of John Abbott College and McGill University’s environmental and agricultural studies needs some upgrades, including the removal of some asbestos. So for at least for the first two weeks, teachers and students are all online following their daily schedules. “We’re all on Zoom for the whole school day,” Wadden reported. “It’s a lot better than last spring when the system was somewhat haphazardly put together. I’m pleasantly surprised with how smoothly things have gone.” This time round there’s been no Zoom bombing or inappropriate behaviour which plagued some schools last spring when they scrambled to get their online instruction up and running. 


Michael did, however, did have some reservations about how the school year would unfold. As one of the Pearson Teachers Union school representatives, he has closely followed the government’s plan for an eventual return to class. “It seemed to me that in June and July, the government was not on the same page as the school board and teachers,” he recalled. “Were classes to be the bubble or not? Would students be moving from class to class? Is it 2 meters apart or 1.5 metres for students and teachers?” These questions and more troubled him as the back to school date approached. But one thing he knew for sure: as a father-to-be (his wife is expecting their first child in late September), he would be wearing a mask.

For now, he’s comfortable sitting in front of his computer, an array of Google tools at his fingertips. And by the time students are back at “Mac”, the school’s teachers, students and administration will have the benefit of the accumulated experience of other schools that have ironed out some of the opening days’ wrinkles. By the time “Mac” opens for students, Michael may well be a brand new father with a whole new set of life adjustments to confront. Fewer hours of sleep will be one of them. 

John Rennie High School


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