Walking into Marc Garneau Collegiate during a school day now looks very different than it did last year. From once crowded hallways to now-empty ones, hugs in the hallways to “hands to yourself”, precautionary measures against COVID-19 have significantly impacted the daily lives of everyone at MGCI.

Before entering the school, each person must complete a health screening consisting of a series of questions relating to showing signs and symptoms of COVID-19. On school property, masks must be worn at all times and there are designated stairwells for entry and exit on each floor. Arrows have been placed in hallways to reinforce social distancing and direct students as they enter and exit the building. 

In-person classes take place from 8:45 am to 12:30 pm with short breaks in between and each classroom contains about fifteen students seated two meters apart. For washroom breaks, teachers must call a hall monitor to escort the student to the washroom, and only two students are allowed inside at a time. Water fountains are unavailable, although students have access to a water bottle refill station. 

Students continuing with hybrid models attend two to three in-school classes each week while continuing the rest of the course through asynchronous and virtual learning periods. To further limit contact between students and teachers, regular class sizes have been split into cohorts A and B, each attending school on different days. 

Grade 10 student Ukram Gul said, “The quadmester so far is hard to balance since both classes are moving so fast. And even more challenging when you have math and science together”. Kainat Fatima, a Grade 10 student, added, “I do think that quadmesters were helpful in the sense that I have learned how to study better independently and juggle two difficult courses together.”

Students also had the option to attend virtual school, where they were placed in classes with other students in a similar ward. Their course schedule consists of 2 hours of synchronous learning and 0.5 hours of independent learning. Nowrin Noor, Grade 11, said “The biggest challenge with virtual school is it goes way faster than normal school, and if you miss out on something, it’s hard to catch up. There’s also nothing to regulate your schedule so the week just feels like a blob of sleeping and studying”. She added “To stay connected, I try to communicate with teachers as much as possible. I also join clubs and programs like the AIS program at UofT and the Arts Council of MGCI.

Marc Garneau CI has been labeled as an outbreak school, with eleven confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date. Thirteen classes have been required to self isolate to prevent the tentative spread. Talha Jogiat, a grade 10 student who was required to self-isolate along with his class, said, “While self-isolating for the last few days, it helped me rebuild my bond with my sister as it made us spend a lot of time together, so I’m very grateful for that.” However, his experience with virtual school was different. “Personally, I have a very short attention span, and it becomes difficult to learn at home due to the fact that there is no physical presence of a teacher.”

In addition to students, teachers have also been significantly impacted by the changes. Physical Education Teacher Ms. Manjra described the modifications in her teaching. “It’s very uncomfortable to wear a mask during physical education because of the sweat, but I also can’t read the student’s faces. I have no idea how they feel, how they are doing, if they are enjoying themselves and that leaves me frustrated at times. It has been challenging to come up with activities that are engaging and socially distant.” 

A few weeks ago, the city of Toronto announced the closure of all fitness centers, which includes the one at MGCI, which means that phys ed classes have been restricted to the east and west sides of the gym and classrooms. 

“We’ve had to get even more creative with the way we had to teach our classes given the facilities we had available. I try to take my classes outside whenever I can. Since March we’ve been advised to stay inside, so the fitness levels aren’t the same as it would be, if it were any other year.  It has been an excellent opportunity to incorporate yoga, mindfulness and valley walks with the extra time,” added Ms. Manjra.

Along with the physical precautions being taken inside the school, another significant change for both teachers and students has been the hour and fifteen-minute virtual period every day. This has been done to reduce the number of people present in the school and limit person-to-person contact. 

When asked about virtual teaching, Ms. Manjra said, “Lessons and classes which are usually group and discussion based have been more challenging to do online, as students have been less comfortable to share their thoughts and opinions behind the screen. Students have also kept their cameras off, as they don’t feel comfortable putting them on.  As a teacher teaching a class, it is easy to lose momentum, when I’m staring at a screen and I can’t see any of my students. I feel teaching is a shared experience, you pick up on the energy of your students, they drive you and energize you. This exchange is compromised virtually.” 

Many students recall the feelings of excitement and nervousness during their first year at Marc Garneau. However, for freshmen this year, the sentiment is slightly different. Adjusting to a new school can be quite a challenge in itself, and for grade 9 students this year, it has become even more difficult with all the changes caused by the pandemic. 

Grade 9 student Umamah Najam said, “Coming to a new school is a completely different experience. We went from being the oldest in middle school to being the youngest in high school, and that’s sort of intimidating. Usually, we would get a tour around the school and be able to meet our teachers and peers properly, which would have made us more comfortable. It’s also a big jump because learning is very different as well. Teachers are worried about not being able to finish units on time and that means that the work is very cramped.” 

Hadia Kabli, another grade 9 student, added, “I was really looking forward to all the events and field trips that I had heard about. Coming to high school sounded like it would be very fun, but now with the social distancing rules, all of that is pretty much impossible. It’s hard to even meet new people and spend time with your friends.”  

MGCI’s Student Activity Council (SAC) has been trying to create a sense of community within the school despite the circumstances, which has always been a significant part of their role. The sudden lockdown had not allowed for SAC reelections, so last year’s council is still in office. 

SAC Interim Vice President Ryan Chang said, “Personally, the main problem is school spirit – this was hard to get popular even without COVID, so we are really trying to think of ways to engage students. Normally we’d have pep rallies, a grade 9 BBQ, dances, talent shows, etc but all of that isn’t logistically possible anymore.” 

So far, SAC has held virtual spirit activities with the main event being a tournament of the popular game “Among Us”. However, the fact that these events are online means that they garner fewer participants. The goal is to promote spirit and connectivity within the school community as much as possible, even while keeping distance. Other than spirit events, SAC has been keeping up with administrative tasks such as setting up club registration and acting as the liaison between students and staff.

“Overall, I feel like we’re doing the best we can. It’s hard to communicate with our staff advisors, the entire [SAC] team, and especially the office online since everyone’s still trying to adapt while having other commitments at home,” added Ryan.

Grade 12 students in their final year of high school have also been impacted greatly by the pandemic. In pre-pandemic times, students would have been able to attend information sessions and visit colleges and universities to get a better understanding of what their post-secondary experience might look like. Now, however, all information must be obtained through virtual tours and sessions. 

“It’s kind of hard to make decisions about your future based on zoom calls”, says grade 12 student Rana Balabel. “Since it’s our final year, I think a lot of us were looking forward to events such as prom and, of course, graduation. It’s sort of sad that our last year of high school, where memories are usually made, is being spent half at home, with no celebration and limited interaction,” added Labibah Salim, another senior. 

Along with Grade 12 students, their guidance counselors have also been dealing with many changes as they try to guide those in their final year. Post-secondary information sessions are now being held exclusively online, and all questions or concerns must be addressed through email.

“I feel that the communication aspect has become somewhat difficult”, says Grade 12 Counselor Ms. McIsaac. “We get many requests from students in a single day, and it takes a lot of going back and forth before issues can actually be resolved. However, I think it’s also good that students learn to communicate this way now because they’ll probably have to do more of it in university. Important events such as post-secondary information sessions have also gone completely virtual, and I think another challenge with this is getting the word out to students. We have a guidance Google classroom and we do our best to post up-to-date information frequently, but students don’t always check. It’s difficult to communicate this way, but we’re doing our best to help students in the ways we can.”

While MGCI is a new world compared to last year, one piece of familiarity is the snack program.  In pre-pandemic times, snack bins would be placed outside stairwells on the first floor at the start of the second period for students to pick up. Now, trays of healthy snacks are set up outside door 7 for students to grab on their way home. Staff members are stationed nearby with bottles of hand sanitizer in hand, and students are required to sanitize their hands before touching any of the food items. 

Vice Principal Mr. Haid reflected on the current situation. “I am impressed with peoples’ resilience. I am impressed by the flexibility and adaptability of students and teachers. Though I miss the routine and predictability of pre-COVID times, I acknowledge that good can come from times of struggle and challenge. I hope that we take this knowledge and work to ensure that we come out of this challenge with a greater sense of community, shared humanity, and care for those around us.” The MGCI community has been impacted by COVID-19 in many ways. While students and staff are facing unprecedented challenges, the school community as a whole is doing its best to stay connected and limit the spread of the virus.