First day of school for Vermont students means masks, temperature checks, remote learning

Students across Vermont returned to school on Tuesday after spring of remote learning and an extended summer vacation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The familiar school building are open again, but things look different than when they were last in classrooms in March. Most districts adopted a schedule that alternates between in-class sessions and online classes during the week.

Masks were a required accessory to the first-day-of-school outfits, and students arriving for their first day on Tuesday also went through temperature checks before being allowed into the building, a by-now familiar ritual in the time of COVID-19.

Here are what the first day of class looked in schools around Chittenden County.

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Williston Central School students had their temperatures checked by school staff and volunteers before entering the school on the first day, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Students were required to show a temperature of under 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to gain entrance. The two students pictured were cleared.

Williston Central School

Outside Williston Central School, sidewalk chalk messages expressed the excitement that students likely wouldn’t see on teachers’ faces while everyone wore masks on the first day back Tuesday.

“Welcome back!” one message read.

“We’re glad you’re here,” another said.

The school saw a fairly smooth start to its first day back after students had spent six months away from the building due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students arrived in waves – buses first, walkers and bikers, then several waves of students being driven to school.

Williston Central School students get off the bus to walk into school on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Bus riders did not need to get their temperatures checked upon arrival to school because they had them checked as they boarded the bus. Tuesday was the first day of public school in Vermont.

Students who arrived on the bus were automatically cleared to enter the school. They had their temperatures checked as they boarded the bus from home. However, all other students had to have their temperatures read upon arrival. A temperature below 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit was the ticket inside.

Students being driven to school by their parents didn’t even have to leave the car for their temperature checks. Staff and volunteers took students’ temperatures at several drive-up stations.

Williston Central School Building Principal Jackie Parks performed checks at one of the stations at the front of the school, using it as a way to greet children and their families as they returned.

“It’s so good to see the kids,” she said in between checks.

The ritual on display on Tuesday will be completed every day, Parks said. She and Lead Principal Greg Marino both said there may be some tweaks to the process, but for the most part, it ran smoothly and without traffic back-ups.

The best part? There appeared to be no students denied entry to school because of a high temperature, Marino said.

By 8:35 a.m., kids were all inside the school ready for their first day. At least one class was being held outside Tuesday morning – with students’ chairs spaced six feet apart and all participants wearing masks.

“All in all, I think things went better than I expected,” Marino said. He added, “We’re just so excited to have the kids back. We’ve been waiting six months for this.”

C.P. Smith Elementary in Burlington

At C.P. Elementary School in Burlington, the excitement was palpable after 5 1/2 months of planning and waiting, students and staff were able to be back together again.

“I was being crazy in my car because that is how much I was excited,” said Eloise Desautels, a second grader who continued to show enthusiasm while enjoying her snack and “mask break” time outside. 

Eloise Desautels, a second grader at C.P. Smith Elementary, playfully rocks in her chair while enjoying some outside time that gave her a brief "mask break" during snack time with her classmates on the first day of school, Sept. 8, 2020. Eloise said she was crazy with with excitement in the car as she was driven to school this morning.

The time away from teachers and friends was long, especially to the youngest students. Looking at her school principal, Leonard Phelan, second grade student Lulay Mohamed said, “That he grew a beard, that’s how long it was.”

C.P. Smith Elementary second grader Lulay Mohamed fidgets with her mask as she talks about her first day of school on Sept. 8, 2020. The Burlington student says you can tell how long they have been out of school by how long Principal Phelan's beard has grown. Smith and all other Vermont schools were closed for 5 1/2 months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seeing friends again was a major perk for students who missed the social aspect of school life, but it was a little bittersweet for Grace Sunshine, a fifth grade student.

“It feels pretty good, but I can’t high-five someone or hug,” she said. As part of an increased focus on social-emotional learning, the students were working on non-contact ways to greet friends.

Grace also practiced lengthening her hand-washing time to longer than the three seconds typical of previous year’s habits.

Grace Sunshine, a fifth grader at C.P. Smith Elementary in Burlington is glad to be back in school after a long hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. On her first day of classes, Sept. 8, 2020 she says she hasn't yet gotten used to wearing a face mask or greeting her friends without hugs.

Eloise said she was was looking forward to seeing her teachers again, having fun and activities. “Lots of activities I really like and I haven’t been able to do them,” she said.

As for wearing face masks, Grace said it’s still weird and she is looking forward to a time when they don’t have to wear them anymore. 

“I’m getting used to it,” Eloise said. “I just feel free when my mask is off.” 

Principal Leonard Phelan said he is “thrilled everybody is back” and “everything’s going as I’d hoped.” He said the drop-off process, which included health checks for the first time, went smoothly. 

School looks a little differently this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifth graders at C.P. Smith Elementary in Burlington are in one of their first classes of the year on Sept. 8, 2020. They returned with face masks, desks spread at least 3 ft. apart and enhanced sanitizing regimens.

Superintendent Tom Flanagan had been at several Burlington school sites in the morning and said he saw “lots of smiling faces under the masks” and that some adults were nervous, but generally the kids were great. He said he was impressed with the teachers’ work getting ready and how vigilant they have been to keep everyone safe.

Patricia Kissell, a teacher of 33 years at Smith Elementary said, “I am just so impressed how the kids lined up this morning, and stood and waited, did their health checks, they’re all really comfortable with the thermometer.”

Kissell was a little nervous returning to school this year given her age risks for the virus, but really wanted to be back with the kids. She said she could draw on her longevity as a teacher to incorporate outdoor social games that she used early in her career before technology and play structures were prevalent.

Phelan said that even with some changes this year for health and safety precautions, there was the same level of excitement and in many ways felt like a normal first day of school.

Rice Memorial High School welcomed students back with signs of encouragement including "You got this!" and "Welcome back Knights" on the first day of school. The Roman Catholic school, along with Vermont public schools, reopened Sept. 8, 2020 with enhanced health protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health screenings with temperature taking and symptom questioning took place upon arrival, and Principal Lisa Lorenz said it went well, more smoothly than anticipated.

Rice Memorial High School

Health checks and drop offs at Rice Memorial High School, a Roman Catholic school in South Burlington, went more smoothly than anticipated, according to Principal Lisa Lorenz.

Abe Gavin, a junior, said he felt the administration did a good job preparing them for the school year with communications before the first day, but that “It’s definitely different.”

Much of the first day was getting students used to routines and understanding what the year would be like.

Abe Gavin, a junior at Rice Memorial High School, is glad to be back at school, Sept. 8, 2020. He has yet to try wearing a face mask playing on the school soccer and basketball teams, which will be different this school year. While the precautions are somewhat of a nuisance, he feels safe knowing they are protecting each other from COVID-19 transmission at school.

Traffic flow was one of the many changes this year. “If you wanted to go to a classroom that’s right next to yours you have to go upstairs and then around just because they only want people going one direction,” Gavin said.

Predictably, facemasks were one of the largest changes for students. For junior Madison Denton, she had a head start getting used to wearing a mask on her face as a catcher for her softball team. “It’s different to breathe with a mask for the whole day instead of being at softball for just two hours,” she said.

Madison Denton, a softball player at Rice Memorial High School, is adjusting to the changes the COVID-19 pandemic has had on playing sports this school year. She is glad to be back and able to see her friends that she missed while schools were closed in the spring. The junior is pictured on the first day of school, Sept. 8, 2020.

Gavin has yet to wear a mask while playing soccer and basketball, but noted it will be a significant change for school sports.

Gavin said he feels safe given all the precautions the school has taken and that COVID-19 case rates in Vermont are so low. And, even though it can feel restrictive, “better safe than sorry,” he said. 

He is just hoping to “have a good year.”

Contact April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.

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