Here’s what life is like for southern Alberta teens living in rural towns during a pandemic

For Alberta kids living in major centres, evidence of the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen daily in indoor public spaces, on transit and, of course, in schools.

But life is different for many southern Alberta kids who only really come face to face with that reality when they’re in school.

Without mandatory mask bylaws in towns like Black Diamond and Turner Valley, school is the only place that many southern Alberta kids are required to wear them.

“I usually forget my mask because I don’t wear it all the time,” said Bridget Bates, a Grade 10 student at Oilfields High School.

“[School] is different because you can’t really socialize with your friends, but as soon as school’s over, you’re just hanging out with them, going into their houses and stuff.”

Grade 12 student Morgan White is still getting used to following health guidelines at school.

“I’m not a fan of the masks and whatnot,” he said. “And all the hand sanitizer makes your hands dry.”

White said that when he’s outside of school in the town and surrounding rural areas, it’s hard to tell there’s a pandemic at all.

“Here, in a small town, you don’t really wear masks because no one really enforces it,” he said. “But go to Okotoks and they’ll make you wear a mask. I still don’t.”

Oilfields High School in Black Diamond, Alta. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC )

Bates said the only time she’s seen health guidelines enforced is when her family made a trip to Calgary. 

“My family personally doesn’t wear masks, but when we go into Calgary, it’s mandatory. I feel like they are a lot more strict. One time my mom forgot her mask and the people at the store didn’t let her in,” she said. “If that happened here, they’d probably say, ‘oh, it’s fine, you’ll just be in there a for a couple of minutes.'”

Outside of the implementation of health guidelines in school, the biggest change to Bates’s life has been caused by the cancellation of team sports.

“The only thing that really sucked is we couldn’t do sports this year in school and outside of school,” she said. “I played soccer, hockey and volleyball and I wasn’t allowed to. Hockey might be starting because we’re just hoping that [the pandemic] ends by the time our season would start.”

Turner Valley resident and former town councillor Barry Williamson has a daughter who teaches at a school in the area, and he appreciates that health guidelines have been mandated in schools provincewide. 

“The COVID rules are in place, which talks about physical distancing, mask wearing and the washing of hands. So all of that stuff is in play. And, you know, adhering to that obviously makes sense,” he said. 

And when it comes to how students in the community are putting those recommendations into play outside of school, Williamson said it’s a hodgepodge.

Turner Valley resident Barry Williamson says that when it’s a mixed bag when it comes to young people following the new rules. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

“This particular community has been pretty good in terms of the kids aren’t out as much as you thought they might be,” he said.

“But I think what I’ve seen, at any rate, is that the kids don’t all follow the rules. I’ve seen groups of people all kind of clustered together and not with masks on, but you know, it’s a case of being outside versus inside.… I think the key to it is that they’re not getting these parties where they go crazy, and that’s where it starts.”

Grade 12 student Duncan Young said the health recommendations have been a lot to get used to at school, but everyone is falling into a routine now.

“We have hand sanitization stations at every door before we come in and we always have to keep our masks on in the hallway and maintain single file. It’s very strict,” he said. “But by the time we’re in the classroom and we have our desks separated, then we can take our masks off and relax for a bit.”

Young said from what he can tell, people are trying to hang out in smaller groups this year, and avoid larger gatherings. 

“Just [hanging out with] small groups that you hang out with very regularly. If there are people that I don’t really know that well or I haven’t seen in a while, it’s best to sort of just stay away,” he said. “That’s sort of how we’ve been handling it.”

Grade 10 student Connor Mckie says he misses the old days before the pandemic restrictions. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Grade 10 student Connor Mckie said that while he isn’t gathering in big groups, he knows some people still are. 

“I think because we’re a small town and there’s not many cases really around us, so nobody has really changed their ways,” he said. 

And, when it comes to school, as much as the rules may be difficult to get used to, Mckie said they’re doing well in ways not intended. 

“It’s very different being in a cohort with 15 kids. It does make me miss the old days, but now I also have to pay more attention because I can’t goof off with my friends.”

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