Josh Frazee with daughters Harper, left, and Campbell, outside their Brunswick home after the first day of school on Monday. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK  — Harper Frazee gave her first day in pre-kindergarten at the new Kate Furbish Elementary School a thumbs up. 

Her sister Campbell, a third-grader at Harriet Beecher Stowe, also had a good first day in her new school and was especially excited to “elbow bump” her new teacher to say hello. 

Eating lunch in her classroom was fun, but recess was a bit of a disappointment, spent on a square of grass, unable to use the playground and trying to “dodge the kids who were running around not social distancing,” she said. 

Overall, it was a good first day back, Campbell said. Wearing her mask all day was not too hard, though some classmates were better at it than others, and they watched a video about social distancing that used ping pong balls and mouse traps to explain how it works. 

Monday was the first day of school for Brunswick students in “cohort A.” Harper and Campbell will go back to school on Tuesday, and then be remote for the rest of the week. “Cohort B” will go to school on Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday reserved for cleaning the school and planning. High school will operate a little differently, with students broken into three groups for four condensed 45-minute periods of instruction and only one day of in-person learning per week. 

The first two weeks of school are a “soft opening,” where instruction is focused on procedure and the social and emotional needs of students. Classes will meet in small groups to learn more about what the fall will look like, while giving teachers more time to prepare and the district more time to collect data about reopening across the state. 

With one first day under their belts and another to go, families and teachers seem optimistic about the start of the year. 

“Today we welcomed back our students back for the first time since March, and to say that was heartwarming is an understatement,” Superintendent Philip Potenziano said in an email. “We have additional health and safety requirements, in-person, hybrid and remote learning opportunities occurring, and that alone is an undertaking that no one could have fathomed in January 2020.”

All families had the option to pursue distance-only learning, but are asked to commit to doing so until December break. According to Potenziano, roughly 23% of students will be distance learning this year. 

Considering the pandemic, it was a smooth transition back to school, he said, and despite the masks there were “many smiling eyes.” There were some hiccups, such as transportation congestion and they still need to figure out how many meals will be delivered to the remote locations, but “it won’t be long before we have a good handle on those,” he said. Monday, the district delivered 158 meals on buses to remote locations. 

Nicole Flynn, a Kindergarten teacher at the new Kate Furbish school, only had three students and it was “definitely a different experience,” but the kids still had a lot of fun, she said. They read a book called “Smiling from Ear to Ear: Wearing Masks While Having Fun” and learned songs about hand washing. They enjoyed mask breaks and playtime outside, but were good about wearing them in the classroom. 

“It’s definitely a strange year and a strange first day, but they told me they loved Kindergarten,” she said. Her class on Thursday will have six kids. 

One of the biggest challenges of the first day, and especially in a brand new school, was that parents could not walk their children in, they just had to drop them off outside. 

“I think if I was a parent of a kindergartener, that would be really hard for me,” she said. 

It’s going to be hard for Angela Ruiz. 

Her daughter starts Kindergarten on Thursday, and while her daughter is excited about making new friends, and Ruiz is excited about that for her, she’s worried about just dropping her off and watching her go. 

“This isn’t her first or second grade,” she said. “We’ve never been in the school, we can’t walk her in, we just have to make sure she gets there. It’s super, super stressful.” 

“I’m sure it’s going to be fine, but it would have made me feel better if we could have met with the teachers one on one first,” she added “I would have met the teacher anywhere, even outside.” 

Ruiz said she is lucky that her mom works nights and can watch her daughter on the days she’s not in school, but she feels for the families who don’t have that option and who might not have the extra money in the budget for childcare. 

“I feel the burden so many parents have taken on,” she said. At the same time, Ruiz said she knows how hard the teachers have worked to get ready for the year and doesn’t envy them. 

“I hope it all works out and the kids can stay in school for the year,” she said. 

Josh Frazee, Harper and Campbell’s dad, is optimistic that they will. Brunswick seems to have good handle on things and has been exemplary in mask-wearing, he said.

The smooth start to the year is also encouraging— the girls both had a good day back and pick up and drop off went far smoother than he expected. 

His wife, Jessica Frazee, is a teacher at Kate Furbish Elementary School, and he has worked remotely since the pandemic, so ultimately, given the circumstances, it’s “about as good as it can get.” 

Flynn, too, is hopeful that they’ll be able to stay in school. 

For now, she is taking it day by day and hoping that at some point they can be back without having to wear masks all day long. 

“We’re going to try to make it work,” she said. “Everybody was in good spirits, everybody worked really hard to make it go as smoothly as possible.”

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