In the halls of Cambridge Elementary School in Jeffersonville, an excitement typical of the first day back was the dominant mood.
The mood prevailed despite the ever-present masks on student and teacher’s faces alike that served as a reminder of the health risks undertaken by returning to full-time in-person learning for children under the age of 12 while the Delta variant of COVID-19, which poses a particular risk to the unvaccinated, surges.
“We have to worry about the health of our students and ourselves,” Cambridge Elementary principal Mary Anderson said. “However, we know how to do this. And I’m confident that we can keep people safe. In the instances where we may have cases, we know how to kind of close it off and keep everybody healthy.”
This is Anderson’s 29th first day of school as an educator and 21st at Cambridge Elementary. It was a unique one among all her many first days, she said, as last-minute proclamations from the state and other preparations brought the summer-long preparation down to the wire.
All the preparation made for a smooth first morning. Kids said goodbye to their parents at their vehicles or filed off buses. Fifth and sixth graders dismissed inquiring teachers asking if they knew where they needed to be with practiced confidence, while younger or newer kids were willing to be shepherded to their classroom.
Even the morning downpour waited until most of the students were safely inside the building.
Common surgical masks, orange masks, tie-dye masks, masks made to look like the mouth of Cambridge Elementary’s tiger mascot and other unique patterns were all present in the hallways. Though their mouths were obscured, the children’s eyes lit up at the sight of their friends and teachers.
“It’s a lot of responsibility to keep 400 people safe and I take it really seriously,” Anderson said. “But I feel like we’re ready.”
While the state policy around COVID-19 mitigation measures and schools is always in flux, while Republican Gov. Phil Scott stands firm against calls from Democrats for enhanced mitigation measures in schools and other indoor spaces, and while reports of infection are already coming out of schools elsewhere in Vermont, Lamoille North Supervisory Union elementary schools are trying to return to in-person learning as safely as possible.
Over in Hyde Park
Later that day at Hyde Park Elementary School, a similar sense of delicate normalcy and orderly excitement prevailed. As the electric bell chimed at precisely 2:45 p.m. and signaled the end of the school day, no masks were immediately flung away from the children’s faces, though they’re allowed to remove them outside.
“Everybody’s flexible and resilient,” Hyde Park Elementary principal Diane Rielly said. “We’re just living each day. Our teachers are so flexible. They take each day at a time. It’s our mantra: Take each situation and make it an opportunity. Rather than a complication, it’s an opportunity.”
Rielly spoke between trips escorting younger children to their waiting parents. She took them by the hand and led them slowly. Kindergartners wore decorated paper hats — their “first day of school” hats, some of which were even colored to match the wearer’s mask. According to Reilly, it’s just one of the school’s many first day traditions, celebrated no matter what.
The resilience of children and teachers was evident to Reilly because she’d seen it demonstrated before, when the entire school was operated out of hotel rooms in Morrisville while their historic schoolhouse underwent renovations.
Monday was Reilly’s 31st first day of school as an educator and her 11th as Hyde Park Elementary principal. Her sense of calm and exactness seemed to extend to everything around her, from the orderly line of vehicles making their way through the cramped parking lot to the children lining up to board the bus and take their assigned seats.
Even as concerns about a rising tide of COVID-19 cases has coincided with the start of the school year, Reilly can only focus on what she sees as the positive developments the pandemic has wrought at her school.
“Throughout the year, we’ll be outside and we do focus a lot on outdoor education. We had an excuse to have kids outside more so we’re taking advantage of that,” she said. “Last year, our P.E. class was outside every day but two days each week, all winter. You got to think about that. The kids thrived on being outside. They’re Vermont kids. They’re tough and they’re awesome.”