OTTAWA -- No four-year-old should start kindergarten like this: Her beaming smile masked and surrounded by edgy parents in marked off sections of the school yard before entering a staggered-start classroom of just six students to better test physical distancing procedures.

I joined my granddaughter Ali’s walk to school with her parents and older brothers today to launch her education on a first-day start unlike any other.

She’s been counting down to this morning with unrestrained excitement. “Three more sleeps!” “Two more sleeps!!” And then, with a big bounce out of bed into her new outfit before gleefully inspecting the contents of her unicorn-decorated backpack loaded with hand sanitizers, spare masks and her first packed lunch, “it’s school day!”

But this year, uniquely and sadly, her first lessons were less about art and spelling her name and all about how to clean her hands, which materials she can touch and how to keep her distance from anyone outside her classroom.

The most daring educational experiment of our time has begun as Canada sends its children into a giant pandemic petri dish to see what happens when all those bubbles collide in the classroom.

Ali’s high-octane teacher told me she has isolated from her extended family as she waits to see if this risky reopening delivers an education without coronavirus interruptions.

She also cautioned that it’s futile to expect a couple dozen energetic youngsters with hands all over everything to avoid sharing every bug they catch including, potentially, coronavirus.

She’s undoubtedly correct.

But the first tentative steps into this risky realm are encouraging, even if some of the reactions to positive tests might seem excessive, such as the self-isolation imposed on almost 200 bused-in students and their teachers in Ottawa this week after a few COVID-19 cases were detected.

The provinces appear to have set in motion reasonable precautions to meet unreasonable expectations, knowing they cannot guarantee complete safety for all students in such a closely confined environment with winter closing in.

The inconvenient truth behind this challenging decision is that the kids need the discipline and social interaction they can only get in front of a professional teacher, working parents cannot cope with children hovering around their video-conferencing computers for an entire school year and lessons for many students are less effective if delivered online.

Without school over the longer term, the mental, physical and emotional health of our children will undoubtedly be compromised.

Still, there’s no masking the reality of this reopening as anything less than one of the riskiest public policy moves ever attempted in the field of education.

The cost may yet be high.

Families who have reunited over the summer may be hesitant to reconnect once school age kids return to their social circle.

And if it fails badly, the price for politicians who ordered the reopening will be heavy enough to outweigh any and all the positives from their pandemic-fighting actions to date.

Of course, the key to parents having confidence in the system is accurate communications on what is happening in that classroom, either from school administration or the teachers themselves.

And it’s a two-way information flow. Without parents alerting the schools to family illness and taking steps to keep their child at home if that happens, the system cannot remain healthy.

So may the 2020 school start be unfortunately memorable as the one where apprehensive parents feared, rightly or wrongly, they were sending their children into harm’s way for a greater good.

And by the time Ali enters senior kindergarten, let’s hope you don’t need to read her eyes to know there’s a radiant first-day smile behind the mask.

That's the bottom line.