Paige Knapp arrived at Keene High School Monday morning with her hands full.
In her right hand, the sophomore from Stoddard balanced a cup of Dunkin’ iced coffee with the strap of a lunch box wrapped around her wrist. In her left hand, she held her cellphone, open to a web page confirming she had no COVID-19 symptoms and hadn’t come in recent contact with anyone with the viral respiratory illness.
She displayed this confirmation as she entered the building, the same way she has every day she’s been in school since September. But on Monday, for the first time all year, Paige was walking into a school with about 1,200 students. That’s roughly twice as many as attended in-person classes under the school’s hybrid model, in which students came to school two days a week.
“It’s really nerve-racking, but I’m really excited to see everyone again,” she said. “It feels good to be getting back to normal again, while also feeling safe.”
Monday — which marked the return to full in-person classes for N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 and the Monadnock Regional School District — brought a similar mix of excitement and trepidation for many students and staff members, they said. Melissa “Missy” Suarez, the principal at Mount Caesar Elementary School in Swanzey Center, said it felt like another first day of school.
“I Zoom with the whole school every morning, and that’s how we approached it, was this is like the second first day of school,” she said. “So, it’s good energy. It’s good to see people. It feels like we’re moving forward.”
Early last month, Gov. Chris Sununu ordered all K-12 public schools statewide to hold in-person classes five days a week beginning April 19, though districts can still offer a fully remote option to students who aren’t yet comfortable returning.
SAU 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — received a waiver from the state to delay a full reopening until Monday, when schools returned from spring break. The Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — did not get a waiver. Instead, the school board sent a letter to N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut declaring the district’s intent to postpone fully reopening until this week.
Adalind Nugent, a kindergartener at Mount Caesar, said she was excited for the school’s full reopening, “because I get to play with my new friends.” Her teacher, Kate Ells, said she went from two cohorts of eight students, who came to school on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays, to one class of 16.
“I’m very excited to have them all back,” Ells said as she watched over her students on the playground during recess Monday morning. “And the neat thing that I’ve noticed being out at recess is, I was worried that the two cohorts would kind of stick together as little cliques, but they’re all playing together, and they’re mixing together very nicely.”
Adalind, for instance, had already made a new friend, Anna Brochu, by the time their class went to recess shortly before 10 a.m. Anna said it was “really fun” to play with her new friend Adalind, adding that the pair spent their recess “playing tag and running around.” The latter activity was necessary, Adalind said, “because the boys were chasing us.”
Inside Mount Caesar, 1st-grader Kyran Pearson said he was feeling a little overwhelmed at all the new people in his classroom.
“It feels kind of scary,” he said. “... There’s a lot of people. And when all the people talk, I try to cover my ears because it is super loud.”
But, Kyran said, he still feels safe at school because his teacher, Melissa Fitz Gerald, is there for him. And ultimately, he’s looking forward to becoming friends with the other kids in his class he hadn’t met before Monday.
Fitz Gerald, who has 13 students in her class, said she was thrilled to have them all back at once but will feel more comfortable when all of her students are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. (The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has emergency-use authorization in the U.S. for people 16 and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are approved for people 18 and older.)
“I don’t think I’ll feel completely at ease until they’re all ready to be vaccinated, just because as a teacher, and as a parent also, that’s your main concern, is making sure they’re healthy and safe,” she said. “But I’m thrilled. It’s just nice having a full classroom back.”
Beckley Wooster, a freshman at Keene High, said she was looking forward to more full classrooms, too.
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m excited to meet everybody and have full-size classes,” said Beckley, a Winchester resident. “... [The hybrid model] is definitely not what I was expecting for my high-school experience. But I guess it’s been kind of nice to ease into high school with smaller class sizes.”
Mikayla Dudek, a Keene High senior, said big crowds make her anxious, but she still feels safe returning to full in-person classes because of the health and safety measures in place, like masking and social distancing. Plus, she added, returning to some level of normalcy gives her hope that some senior-year traditions will move forward, too.
“I think that there’s a plus side to coming back because, being a senior, I really want prom and graduation,” Mikayla, a Keene resident, said. “And I think that being back full time, I feel like there’s more of a guarantee for that. In hybrid, there was more of a, ‘Maybe not.’ ... That’s my big thing being a senior: I want prom and graduation.”