In normal times, the stairwells at Fleetwood Park Secondary School, in Surrey, B.C., would get to be so crowded that Tanvi Pandhi could barely find a few inches to herself during the hustle between classes.

Today, students follow lines of tape on the floor that direct traffic while trying to control the spread of COVID-19. It still feels unsettling to the Grade 12 student, even six months after classes resumed.

“It just seems so empty,” she said.

Across Canada, some of public education’s most dramatic changes in response to the pandemic have played out in high schools. Many students are in a hybrid model: Roughly a quarter to a half of their learning happens in the classroom and the rest is online. Varsity sports have been cancelled or strictly limited, along with many of the other extracurricular activities – from school plays to chess clubs – that have defined the high-school experience for generations.

Students have missed out on dances, graduation parties and proms. They miss the activities that made school fun, and administrators warn it still may not be safe enough for many of those rites of passage to return by the fall.

Ms. Pandhi attends school for two hours every morning, then logs in from home in the afternoon for her second course. She said she doesn’t mind learning online because it gives her more flexibility. But she misses playing volleyball and basketball on school teams, and hanging around after classes to attend a club or a student council meeting.

“It was a huge, huge part of my high-school life,” she said. “To suddenly have that taken away, it did impact me.”

She tries to remain involved in activities. She leads a spirit group that meets online. They recently posted sticky notes with hopeful messages around school in an attempt to make a sterile environment more welcoming. “We’re doing the best we can,” she said.

In Edmonton, 17-year-old Sapphira Lewin described attending school as being in a postapocalyptic scenario.

“It’s weird,” she said, “because there’s not a lot of kids there. We’re all wearing masks. We’re all distancing. Everyone is quiet. It’s a really weird feeling. You walk through and feel uneasy.”

She has reluctantly accepted the changes, but is disappointed that she cannot fully enjoy her final year of high school. She and her Grade 12 classmates have a designated area for lunch, group projects are limited and many of her friends have opted to learn remotely.

“It just feels like I’m living the same day over and over again,” she said about attending class and returning home earlier, with no extracurricular activities or space to socialize with friends at school.

Ruby Boyd, a student in Vancouver, had been excited to start high school this year. The experience, however, has been far from thrilling. The condensed nature of the quadmester model, where students take two classes at a time, has been overwhelming, she said. Attending online classes “feels so optional” because most students have their cameras and microphones off. She barely knows her classmates.

“I feel like high school is a time when you develop your personality a little bit more. But it’s a little hard right now, because you have a limited group of people you can see, and limited exposure to those people as well.”

She added: “I’m really, really hoping that we can go back to school as normal [next year]. I know that maybe it’s not possible, but that’s what I’m hoping for.”

At least one school board has said that high-school students should continue to expect part-time in-person classes next fall. Staff at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board told trustees last week that many of the pandemic safety measures would remain in place, and they hope to “incrementally” resume more normal activities based on the advice of health officials.

“Once provincial direction and advice from [Ottawa Public Health] supports the removal of cohorting, daily attendance, and/or a return to the regular semester format, we will look to implement those changes as quickly as possible,” stated a report presented at the meeting. “Our goal will be to resume regular operations incrementally and as it is safe to do so.”

Danny Assimakopoulos, a Grade 11 student in Toronto, remains hopeful. He played on the school’s volleyball and soccer teams before the pandemic; he socialized with friends in the school hallways.

Now he lines up with his health screening form every other morning to attend a class that goes for more than three hours. He’s at home in front of his computer for the remaining school day. Teachers do their best online, he said, but it is nowhere near as engaging as being in the classroom. Most times, students keep their cameras off.

“It’s not fun, I’ll tell you that. It’s not fun. … As a social person who really enjoys the everyday banter with their classmates, it’s not fun at all,” he said.

The Globe and Mail, March 2, 2021