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Hugh MacKinnon, seen on Monday, is a retired teacher who returned to supply teach children of first responders at Simon Cunningham Elementary School in Surrey, B.C., Monday. He says that, for the first time in his career, students are calling him by his first name. In this setting, it works, he said.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When one of Kerry Ogilvy’s elementary school students would complete a task, the suburban Vancouver education assistant used to offer a high-five to celebrate.

Today, she stretches out her leg to tap their toes.

Working at one of the only schools open in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, she has had to get creative.

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“You find a way,” she said after sharing an image where she demonstrated the “low-toe” with one of her kindergartners. “We don’t share any germs when we tap our feet together. It gives him that little bit of physical contact when we do it.”

Educators worry gap may grow for disadvantaged students stuck at home

How much should parents be sweating homeschooling?

Ms. Ogilvy is temporarily working at Simon Cunningham Elementary in Surrey, B.C., one of the few schools across the country that has opened its doors for the children of essential service workers – the doctors, nurses, police officers and paramedics who are on the front lines of the pandemic.

Although the opening is limited to a few classrooms, parts of its operation could potentially serve as a model for the rest of Canada to follow when schools gradually reopen their doors to millions of temporarily home-schooled students.

Quebec Premier François Legault said on Tuesday that public-health officials are working on a plan to reopen schools and daycares gradually in coming weeks, and it would likely start in regions with low infection rates. Denmark recently reopened some of its schools for younger children, adhering to distancing measures. In British Columbia, the Ministry of Education said it takes direction from public-health authorities, while also receiving regular updates from school districts on the challenges and successes and researching other jurisdictions on what protocols are in place for in-class instruction.

The Surrey School District has opened up three of its schools, with as many as 50 students registered in each (the children don’t typically attend the school during the regular academic year; they are there because their parents work nearby). About 2,300 school spaces have been created across the province so far, with more planned, according to the Ministry of Education. Other provinces, including Ontario, have opened childcare centres to free up front-line essential-service employees.

Children are a wild card in this pandemic: They seem to be protected from the deadly effects of COVID-19, but there is still much more to learn about how they drive transmission of the virus. Schools will have to consider reconfiguring classrooms or staggering start times to allow for physical distancing.

Simon Cunningham, less than a five minute drive from Surrey Memorial Hospital, is usually bustling with as many as 550 children. These days, 46 are registered.

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The school looks different in other ways, too. Classroom numbers are low – a maximum of eight children for every two education assistants, with two additional teachers who move between classrooms to help – to keep children and staff physically distanced. The rooms have doors that lead outdoors, so parents do not walk through the hallways when dropping off their children. Siblings sit together and use the same toys and craft supplies, but otherwise children are desks apart. And hand hygiene is practised many times in a day.

The children complete work assigned from their regular classroom teachers. But staff develop other learning activities. On a recent afternoon, six children in one classroom created a store with signage where shoppers followed physical-distancing markers as they browsed the aisles. In another room, a group in grades 2 to 5 learned about airplane designs and created their own planes, which led to an airplane-flying competition outside. In the gymnasium, children designed an obstacle course that kept them apart but playing together.

The playground structure is off limits, but Ms. Ogilvy and the other education assistant in the room take their students outside to kick a soccer ball or sketch a little roadway in chalk.

“These kids that actually get to come to school now have some structure in their day again,” she said. “It takes a little pressure off their parents, too.”

Christy Northway, the district’s assistant superintendent, said that similar to other childcare facilities, the schools are open as early as 6:45 in the morning, and close at 7:30.

“It is child care, but there are other layers to it,” Ms. Northway said. “We still want kids to be engaged in learning. We’re not replacing the classroom instruction; we’re supporting it.”

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Hugh MacKinnon, a retired teacher who returned to supply teach, said that this was the first time in his career that students called him by his first name. In this setting, it works, he said. The children are in an unfamiliar school, and staff want them to feel secure, he said.

“It’s very different, but it’s a wonderful experience,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “The day just flows.”

For parent Binita Cieslar, the school has been a help to her family. She and her husband are police officers.

She said her seven-year-old is excited to attend, even though it’s not his regular school.

“He just loves going back to structure in some way, and just being around kids,” Ms. Cieslar said. “He loves it, and he feels safe.”

With a report from Les Perreaux in Montreal

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