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Usually I greet my high-school students, all with mild intellectual delays, with the following question, “Would you like a hug, a handshake or a high-five?” This year, I’ll have to come up with a new greeting.

Usually I look forward to returning to my class in September. But this fall that excitement was replaced with a heavy sense of uncertainty. The majority of the kinaesthetic learning that we do isn’t going to be possible now, and I’m not sure how I’ll help facilitate hands-on learning from a physical distance of six feet.

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Students enter my class in Grade 9 and can stay until they’re 21. We spend a lot of time together because they’re with me for three out of four periods every day, each week, for the whole year. I tell my students that we’re each other’s school family. This isn’t an exaggeration because many of us spend more time together than we do with our actual families. It’s a place where students trust me, and their peers, and they feel comfortable taking risks. One of the problems for this school year is that my school family isn’t in my bubble.

Touch is a big part of my students' learning. So much of what we do is hands-on. We practice essential math skills using play money. Ordinarily, I give my students a sheet of paper with various amounts written on it ($12.67, $29.55, etc.) and they use the class money to create those amounts, taking what they need from the communal “bank.” Each student will need their own set of money now.

After researching recipes, we go to the grocery store to purchase the ingredients for a meal that we make together. The preparation and cooking are divided up according to skill and ability so that everyone can contribute. The look of accomplishment and satisfaction on my students' faces when we sit down to enjoy the food we’ve made can make me teary-eyed. Cooking will have to be done individually now, and no one is allowed to share food.

Many of my students participate in co-op placements and get invaluable work experience. They volunteer in settings such as daycares and community centres and in more commercial settings such as grocery stores and restaurant kitchens. Work placements are not running this year. This is especially unfortunate because my students really enjoy going to work; their inclusion and contributions are a tremendous source of pride. I can’t replicate “real world” job experience in the classroom.

Some days, when it seems like the general morale needs a boost or just because everyone is already having a great day, I will go around the room and deliver high-fives to each student, insisting, “Come on, I know you can do better than that,” until they enthusiastically slap me some skin. I’m usually an optimist but I don’t think air-only high-fives will elicit the same positive response.

I’ve offered the comfort of a hug to students who have lost family members and pets, gotten dumped by boyfriends and girlfriends, and had other personal crises which brought them to tears. I can’t be a shoulder to cry on when I’m keeping a physical distance of six feet.

Another big part of my class program is getting out and participating in the community. In the past we would have all piled onto a bus to learn a new transportation route. We used to go to our local YMCA on Thursday afternoons to practice healthy and active living. Every couple of weeks we’d go to our local library to take out books. Once a month we met other special-education classes at the movies for a social outing. Trips aren’t allowed this school year.

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My school board is making high-school students and staff wear a mask and teachers also have to wear a face shield. While I understand the need for these, and I’m thankful for such protections, I can’t help but think of them as emotional barriers between me and my students. Like many teenagers, most of my students struggle to verbally express their emotions, but studying their faces helps me determine their moods. Based on their facial cues, I know whether to crack a joke or give them some space. I suppose I’ll have to get really good at deciphering the look in their eyes.

I’ve always practised and encouraged good hygiene – to the point where people would occasionally refer to me as a germaphobe – but now I worry that much of my day will be spent policing the new health and safety rules: “Please sit down, there’s only supposed to be one student out of their desk at a time.” “Please pull up your mask, it’s supposed to cover your mouth and your nose.” “Please wash your hands.”

I know this may seem like I’m complaining, and I’m aware that there isn’t a single industry or person that hasn’t had to adapt the way they normally do things, but I feel bad for my students. They struggle with small changes even at the best of times. As news changes daily and I try to adapt to and understand this pandemic, I will also need to help my students cope with the changes we have to make. I can’t help but wonder, because our program is an alternative one and we didn’t operate under the old “normal,” how we will manage the “new normal”?

I’m going to try my best and I’ll do whatever I can to help my students have a safe and engaging learning experience, but I really wish I could greet them with a hug, a handshake or a high-five.

Jason Garramone lives in Waterloo, Ont.

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