The first day of school is still the first day of school, even with face masks, social distancing and COVID-19.
Students, teachers and parents feel a mix of excitement, nerves, joy and some fear.
That was true Monday morning when Seymour Community School Corp. opened doors at its eight school buildings to start the 2020-21 school year.
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Even the storms that rolled through couldn’t dampen the spirits of students and staff.
It has been five months since schools closed in March due to fears over the novel coronavirus and global COVID-19 pandemic.
School officials have worked tirelessly this summer to develop a reentry plan and implement measures to keep students and staff healthy and safe.
Desks have been spaced out. Plastic dividers have been installed on tables. Hand sanitizer dispensers are located in classrooms and throughout the school buildings. Students are spaced apart in the cafeterias and in some cases are eating lunch in their classrooms. Masks are worn when social distancing isn’t possible.
Emerson Elementary School Principal Julie Kelly said she really didn’t know what to expect from the first day of school.
“I have spent more time getting ready for the start of this school year than I ever have, but last night, I still felt the most unprepared,” she said.
She was surprised, though, by how the day went.
“Today went better than any other first day I have had in the past,” she said.
She attributes the great start to all of the planning and positive attitudes from administrators, teachers, staff and families and the support of the community.
“It is my hope that all of us working together, we can provide a safe, healthy, positive learning environment this year for our students,” she said.
One of her biggest fears was how younger kids would react to wearing a face mask, but children are far more resilient and able to adapt than adults realize, she said.
“The students have far exceeded what I expected on their ability to wear a mask,” she said. “I have had a few of our little ones get their mask on wrong, but they have asked for help, and we were glad to help them get it on correctly.”
One third-grader was so happy to be back in school, she couldn’t wait to get to her classroom.
“As we were walking, I asked how her summer was. She said it was OK, but she got pretty bored,” Kelly said. “It was so bad she said she actually wanted to come back and do math.”
Superintendent Brandon Harpe said principals reported an excellent start to the year.
“Students seemed to be really excited to see their teachers and all of their classmates again,” he said.
Most back-to-school nights were conducted virtually this year, so for most students, it was the first time meeting their teacher and seeing their classroom in person.
Harpe said the pandemic has been a trying time for everyone, but educators are learning lessons that will make programming and the corporation as a whole lot better in the long term.
One concern officials and parents had going into the day was the drop-off and pickup situation as more parents are transporting their children instead of sending them on the buses.
Some of the biggest problem areas were at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School, Seymour-Redding Elementary School, Margaret R. Brown Elementary School and Seymour Middle School.
“As far as challenges, we had low bus ridership, which put a lot more cars on the road,” Harpe said. “With Airport Road being closed, too, things were pretty congested this morning.”
Harpe said officials have met with the Seymour Police Department and are working together to find solutions.
“We were thankful to SPD for their visibility and presence today,” he said.
Even with all of the safety precautions being taken, around 400 students didn’t start the year in the classroom, instead opting to do online learning from home.
Seymour Community Schools developed an online platform allowing students to remote into their classes so they are on the same timeline and are learning along with their peers.
“Our teachers are working hard and doing a great job,” Harpe said. “They are acclimating to having students physically present and also digitally present at the same time. They are also teaching our kids about the pandemic and how to keep themselves and others as safe as possible.”
Chelsie Davis said due to her own health conditions, keeping her 16-year-old son, Aydon, home was the only option.
On Monday morning, Aydon logged into his Seymour High School trigonometry class to find he was one of three online learners. After 20 minutes of being in class, they were dismissed to work on their own.
Aydon said he doesn’t mind online learning because he can work at his own pace and usually is one of the first in the class to finish his assignments.
The only disadvantage is he couldn’t take some of the classes he wanted, including weights, advanced manufacturing and band.
Heather Chase also kept her son, Blayke, home to start his first day of seventh grade at Seymour Middle School through online learning.
Even though they didn’t have to deal with a locker or learning the layout of the building, Heather said there were still first-day jitters.
“There is still logging into Google Meet in enough time so as not to be marked tardy and making sure he can hear his teachers’ instructions,” she said.
But in all, it was a great start, she said.
“I’m so glad to have this as an option,” she said.
Due to the five-month absence, Harpe said this year may have been the most emotional first day of school ever.
“Our kids and staff have been gone since spring break,” he said. “You get into education because you like children and you like school, and we have missed it.”
Parent Angie Mellencamp said like all families, she and her three kids experienced some anxiety and nerves on the first day.
“But once these kids got to their schools and saw smiling eyes behind masks, they were just fine heading into their classes,” she said. “I’m just reminding the kids, ‘Everyone’s in the same boat.’ I think it helps knowing you’re not alone in a new normal.”