Dennis Canniff of Kennebunk hops aboard a school bus, headed for Sea Road School, on Monday, Aug. 30 – the first day of classes for Grades 1-12 in RSU 21. Tammy Wells Photo

KENNEBUNK – There was a hug from his mom, and then Dennis Canniff hopped up on the school bus that would deliver him and others to classes at Sea Road School on Monday morning.

“I’m glad it’s back to the routine,” said Dennis’ mother, Litza Canniff. Dennis, like most RSU 21 students, attended classes in a hybrid model for the last school year, attending in person a couple of days a week, and remotely for the remaining days.

Monday was the first day of the new school year for students in Grades 1 to 12 in RSU 21. Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes were to begin Wednesday.

Maricio Becerra, who works with the Freedom Writers Foundation, speaks to RSU 21 faculty and staff at a symposium Thursday as a lead-up to the beginning of the new school year on Monday, Aug. 30. Tammy Wells Photo

And it was the first-time students were to attend classes in the district schools in-person, five days a week since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools statewide closed in March 2020, and in September 2020, most RSU 21 students were enrolled in a hybrid model for the school year, although kindergarten through Grade 2 students began attending classes four days a week in May.

As part of a package of safety measures in the district, students are required to wear masks on school buses and students and staff are to wear them in school buildings.

RSU 21 will participate in Pool Testing, with parental consent, where specimens from a classroom are combined and then tested to determine if coronavirus is present. If there is a positive result, students are then tested individually. Participating in this process will decrease the number of days students miss from school in the event of a positive COVID case.

RSU 21 faculty and staff were all sporting these T-shirts for a 2-day symposium Aug 26 and 27, ahead of the first day of school for the district on Monday, Aug. 30. Tammy Wells Photo

Last week, on Thursday and Friday, faculty and staff attended a “We are 21,” symposium, an event billed as “a life-changing experience for those who dare to unite efforts, inspire one another, drive innovation, and dream big.”

There were presentations – online in some cases, but in-person in others – from members of the Freedom Writers Foundation, Thriving YOUniversity, and several others.

“You are gathered here today for inspiration,” teacher and Freedom Writers Foundation founder Eurin Gruwell said in a remote presentation.

She talked about her experience at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, more than 20 years ago, where, she said, students would rather read Cliffs Notes than a book.

Most students in her classroom had a troubled home life.

“There weren’t books in their homes, or books in their lives,” she said.

She bought books for her students, even though she said the head of the English department at the time said her students were “too stupid” to read them.

A couple of her students, including Maricio “Tony” Becerra, work with the Freedom Writers Foundation, and spoke at the symposium.

“That was the first time I ever held a new book in my hand,” he said from the stage of the auditorium at Kennebunk High school. “That was my favorite day in high school.”

Schools opened for Grades 1-12 in RSU 21 on Monday, Aug. 30. PreK and Kindergarten were to commence on Wednesday, Sept. 1. Tammy Wells Photo

And while Gruwell acknowledged the demographics of the RSU 21 school district are different than those in Long Beach, her message sounded universal.

“I wanted students to realize what when you fall, someone will pick you up,” she said.

Looking back, Becerra said he was one of the last to “buy into this education thing.”

“Erin took the time to get to know us,” he said of his days in the classroom. “If you keep telling a kid he’s amazing, he’ll begin to think ‘maybe I am.'”

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