Students entering Erin Bjorkdahl’s health class at Bonny Eagle High School on Tuesday morning were greeted at the door by a stack of paper towels, plenty of hand sanitizer and a basket of extra reusable masks.

As they settled into their socially distanced desks, Bjorkdahl reminded the students not to eat in class, to wash their masks after wearing them for the day and to bring water from home since water fountains are closed.

Sheena Matthew helps kids with their spacial distancing as they arrive on buses at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff photographer

“Yes, my face is really warm right now but it’s better than COVID,” Bjorkdahl told the class as she prepared to launch a video on the importance of mask wearing.

That scene and others like it unfolded at schools around Maine on Tuesday as many districts welcomed students back in person for the first time since March. While the first day of classes varies by district, many schools are reopening buildings with new coronavirus precautions this week.

The Maine Department of Education has recommended that all counties with the exception of York offer in-person instruction as long as they can implement required health and safety precautions. Although decisions are left to individual districts, the state on Friday did advise that York County should consider hybrid models, something many districts are already doing, because of an elevated risk of the spread of COVID-19.

Students, parents and teachers expressed a mix of nervousness and excitement about the new school year on Tuesday. Some administrators reported that weeks of preparation over the summer were helping things get off to a smooth start, although that wasn’t the case everywhere.

At least three districts in York County made last-minute modifications to their reopening plans following the state’s advisory Friday, and in Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia issued a letter last week delaying the start of school until Sept. 14, citing a lack of substitute teachers, issues with transportation software and increased enrollment at certain grade levels and schools.

In the central Maine town of Oakland, educators have called for a delay to the start of school because of health and safety concerns, while in Paris on Monday a small group protested the state’s mandate that students wear masks.

During a walk-through at Bonny Eagle High School Tuesday morning, Buxton-based School Administrative District 6 Superintendent Paul Penna said no major issues had come up at the start of the first day for students.

“It’s pretty organized,” Penna said. “We’ve done a lot of ground work. We’ve been doing Zoom meetings with families all summer. We’ve had ongoing … meetings about what our plan is, what it’s going to look like, what you need to tell your kids when you come to school. None of it is really that new, it’s just a matter of doing it.”

Students make their way down a one-way hallway on Tuesday, the first day of classes at Bonny Eagle High School. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Bonny Eagle is one of the largest high schools in Maine, with about 1,100 students. About 550 students attended in person Tuesday, Penna said, with the other half of the students starting remotely. Under the district’s hybrid model, students attend in person either Monday and Tuesday or Wednesday and Thursday and learn remotely the days they aren’t in school. About 15 percent of students districtwide have chosen the remote-only option.

“I’m nervous and excited,” said Justin Cobleigh, a math teacher. “Not seeing the kids for six months has been super weird to me. Just having them back, it feels good to see them after so long. We saw them in the spring through computer screens, but seeing them in person is much different.”

Students spread out to use different entrances Tuesday morning. Once inside, they followed red arrows taped on the floor of one-way halls adorned with plenty of signs reminding them to wash their hands.

Ella Dunne, a senior from Hollis, said she feels lucky to come back to the familiar environment of school, even if it looks a little different.

A teacher walks down a hallway while giving a tour to a prospective student on the first day of school at Loranger Memorial School on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I think everyone here takes this seriously,” said Dunne, 17. “I don’t think anyone in any of our classes would look at this and be like, ‘Why wouldn’t we follow these rules?’ They’re all pretty simple to follow. It’s all here to keep us and our families safe. It’s not a life-changing thing to stand 6 feet apart from people or have to stand in certain spots.”

In South Portland, Elizabeth Polaco had mixed emotions when she dropped off her son Jensi Baez to start fourth grade at Skillin Elementary School. She was both glad he was returning to school and concerned for his health and safety.

“It’s a little bit crazy,” Polaco said. “The most important thing is to be safe.”

Mother and son wore masks as they sat in their car in front of the school. Jensi was a bit nervous, too. “I’ll be happy to go home,” he said.

Safety of students and staff was the top priority as South Portland began welcoming 3,000 students back to school on Tuesday, Superintendent Ken Kunin said.

The district adopted a hybrid model and about 10 percent of students are expected to choose to learn remotely full time. The rest have been divided into two groups that will attend classes in person on either Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. All students will learn online on Wednesdays.

“Things are moving along, going according to plan,” Kunin said in midmorning. “None of us has ever done anything like this before. I usually have butterflies the night before the first day of school. Last night it was a lot more than butterflies.”

Health Teacher Erin Bjorkdahl watches students wipe down their desks after she sprayed them with a disinfectant at the end of class on the first day of school at Bonny Eagle High School. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

South Portland is spending an additional $2 million this year on COVID-19 preparedness and response, including staff, equipment, computer devices, building maintenance, ventilation upgrades, masks and other supplies, most of it covered by federal funding. The district hired two additional nurses this year, going from seven to nine, so there’s one in each elementary and middle school and the high school has two.

Masked staff members greeted Skillin students as they arrived by bus or car and ushered them into the school in small groups. About 165 of Skillin’s 400 students were expected Tuesday.

“So far, so good,” Principal Bethany Connolly said. “We had a pretty tight plan in place and lots of people on duty.”

A handful of students showed up on the wrong day and had to be transported back home, Connolly said.

“We expected that might happen,” she said. “Teaching kids new procedures and protocols is all part of learning. It’s been almost six months since they’ve been in school. Right now we’re focused on getting kids safely back in the classroom. One thing I’m not worried about is the learning that will take place once our teachers are reconnected with students.”

At Loranger Memorial School in Old Orchard Beach, Mia Perez wasn’t exactly excited as she stood outside the school Tuesday morning, her backpack slung over her shoulders and a pink mask on her face.

“I’m not looking forward to remote learning on Wednesday,” she said. “And I’m not looking froward to wearing a mask all day, but I’ll deal with it.”

But the incoming sixth-grader was excited to work with her teachers in person and, most importantly, to see the friends she hadn’t seen since they abruptly switched to remote learning last March.

On Tuesday, third- and sixth-grade students in Old Orchard Beach started the new school year in a building that now includes arrows on the floor, classroom space outside under a tent, and hand sanitizer near every door.

“I’m nervous. Will they pick up something and bring it home? But I want them to get that connection with their teachers, especially if they have to go remote,” said Samantha Sauls, Perez’s mother and president of the PTO for Loranger and Jameson Elementary schools. “I know the school has worked really hard to keep everyone safe.”

Principal Matt Foster and several teachers stood near the front entrance to greet students as they hopped out of their parents’ cars at the curb. Foster, now in his second year as principal, was clearly excited to welcome students back to school.

A sign outside the nurse’s office reminds students to wash their hands on the first day of school at Bonny Eagle High School. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“We got into this profession to help. The time away was not just hard on them,” he said, gesturing to the students lingering near the entrance. “It was tough on us too. It was more than 170 days away from the kids.”

Roughly 80-85 percent of Loranger’s 310 students in grades three to eight are expected to return for in-person instruction this trimester, while the rest participate in the Remote Learning Academy the school district has offered to any student who doesn’t feel comfortable attending classes. Everyone will work remotely on Wednesdays.

To accommodate social distancing, Foster ordered 300 desks to replace the tables most teachers use to allow students to work in groups. The long communal tables have been removed from the cafeteria and replaced with rows of individual desks. Visitors stop at the main entrance to answer symptom screening questions on a computer.

Most classrooms at Loranger only have 14 students, so it was possible to space desks 3 to 4 feet apart. The largest class in the school has 17 students.

Foster knows all of it is different for everyone, but he’s confident students and teachers will do what they need to do to be safe.

“We have a lot of committed, hardworking adults working together to figure this out,” he said.

Before heading into the building, the entire sixth-grade class stood on a playing field as teachers divided them into the three cohorts they will stay in for the next few months.

“This is my 33rd year teaching. This is the craziest one yet,” said sixth-grade teacher Lori Gaudreau. When a student walked up and said, “This is scary,” Gaudreau stopped to reassure her that it would be OK.

In Gaudreau’s classroom, the first lesson of the day was all about safety: reviewing when to wear masks, limits on the number of students in bathrooms, how to keep physical distance in the classroom. She told them she was a little stressed and said she understood if they were, too.

“We’re going to do the best we can and we’ll all be there together to figure it out,” she said. “Our word for the year has to be flexibility. The more flexible we can be, the better. This year is a little bit stressful because it’s different than what we’re used to.”

After a rundown of the new safety procedures, Gaudreau’s class went to breakfast in the cafeteria. This fall, Loranger is providing free breakfast and lunch for every student. After sitting at a desk in the cafeteria, students with drinks or food were allowed to take off their masks.

Within minutes, the sound of students talking drifted out into the empty hallways. George Shabo, a longtime music teacher, walked between the rows to say hello to his students. His smile was obvious even behind his music-themed mask.

“The hardest part is no hugs or high-fives or fist bumps,” he said.

As the sixth-graders ate breakfast, Foster stopped by to see how things were going. The kids all seemed ready to be back and understanding of the need to adjust to a new way of doing things.

“The kids are back and so is the excitement and joy,” he said. “This is what we do. We’re ready for it.”

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