TORONTO -- The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled sports programs, curtailed music lessons and limited class mingling at St. Barnabas Catholic School, but it didn't cancel photo day.

Children filed into the Toronto school's cavernous library on a recent fall day to pose in front of a green screen and offer toothy grins, while a photographer in a cloth face mask did his best to elicit spirited cheer.

Just off-camera, a child's briefly doffed mask lay on a chair. Further out of view, masked and distanced classmates stood fixed to floor markers awaiting their turn.

The annual tradition unfolded in the most unusual of ways, but still offered a welcomed bit of normalcy for school kids navigating daily health checks, new distancing rules and rigorous hand-washing routines.

As he has on previous picture days, 12-year-old Shamar Hoohing arrived camera-ready with a new haircut and braids, done by his auntie the day before.

“I like to look really fresh during my pictures. I really enjoy looking nice,” says Hoohing.

But this year, the Grade 8 student says he also felt a particular drive to document a very unusual year.

Hoohing bemoans the fact that he can't play basketball, nor spend recess with friends in other grades. But he's quick to tout schoolwide efforts to keep COVID-19 at bay.

“This is an important year to show that we've survived and nobody got any sicknesses so far. We've been doing pretty good,” he says.

St. Barnabas is among what appears to be a minority of Ontario schools forging ahead with a fall photo day, says Jordan Moore, vice president of marketing at Edge Imaging, which handled the recent shoot.

She says only 35 per cent of her Ontario school board clients booked fall sessions, with the rest undecided or postponing plans to the spring. Edge Imaging works with 93 boards - roughly 2,500 schools - across Canada, nearly all in Ontario but with some clients in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba.

COVID-19 has forced obvious changes - there are no group photos and all paperwork and payments are digitized, she says.

However, physical photo proofs will still make their way home in kids' backpacks, Moore adds: “That's the one piece that we heard loud and clear that parents still wanted to have.”

Finding alternatives to the class photo has been tricky.

One product for sale is a fake group shot in which individual portraits are arranged digitally to appear as if students stood side-by-side.

In another pilot, detailed instructions will be sent to parents at a Niagara Region school to submit photos of their kids at home - whether they are remote or in-class learners - so the images can be combined “for a consistent look to pull students together.”

Remote learners can also get their photos taken on designated days and times at their school if their principal allows it, says Moore, or they can visit an Edge Imaging studio.

PhotoVisions School Photography Company in Ottawa has digitized proofs and ordering to limit contact and shared papers, says president Mark Oliver, whose fall business also dropped two-thirds. Photos are mailed directly to each family, and retakes are not happening.

It's possible reshoots could happen in the New Year, “if we're able to come back then,” says Oliver, noting yearbooks are also on hold.

“We're on standby for whatever is necessary to be done.”

Oliver recognizes that class photos have been a relatively minor concern amid educational tumult that included new COVID-19 operational guidance, the need for additional teachers and custodial staff, last-minute funding decisions, and political squabbling.

“Definitely not in the Top 10 issues that the administrators have on their mind,” he chuckles.

Back at St. Barnabas, a Grade 1/2 teacher with a jug of sanitizer stands ready to dispense a glob into outstretched hands as each child exits the library to return to class. They take their place at individual desks fitted with a transparent shield to reduce the chance of virus spread.

School principal Mark Novis says there have been no confirmed infections among 165 in-class learners. He says about 140 remote learners can have their school photo taken on a different day, and will likely be offered an image that combines their portrait with those of their in-class peers.

“We want to still send the message to our virtual learners that they're still part of our community, and their classmates will be included with them in the composite.”

For some families, yearly school portraits are a Christmas-gift must-have and may be the only professional photo they'll get of their children, says boutique photographer Heather Davidson-Meyn.

But the Toronto shooter says she's turning down work to avoid possible COVID-19 exposure.

“I've had a few parents say, 'Oh, you know, will you just meet me at the schoolyard?”' says Davidson-Meyn, whose studio Fun Love Photography specializes in custom family portraits.

Davidson-Meyn says she and an assistant typically shoot about 1,000 children from five different schools, but this fall only did one, and by herself - an outdoor shoot for a Montessori school of about 100 kids.

“I cordoned off my own little area so that I was protected from all the children,” she chuckles, adding she wore an assortment of goofy face coverings - a cat mask, one doughnut-themed - to get kids smiling.

She wonders how those kids and their families will look back on the fall of 2020.

“In 10, 20, 50 years, we and they are going to look back and say, 'Oh gosh, remember 2020? Remember those couple of years where we had to wear masks to school?”' she says.

“It's almost going to be a badge of honour for a lot of kids.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2020.