Merry Pancake of Harrisville, behavioral interventionist at Wheelock Elementary, greets 3rd-grade student Aniyaha Tarver of Keene before the first day of school begins on Wednesday in Keene.

Just shy of an hour into the first day of school Wednesday morning, Franklin Elementary School 4th-grade teacher Karen Gianferrari took her class outside for a mask break.

After a few minutes of stretching their legs on the newly repaved parking lot outside the Keene school, Gianferrari’s 17 students gathered in the corner, where she told them all to spread out their arms and take a big step back before sitting down in a socially distanced circle under a colorful homemade banner reading, “Welcome Back! We are SO HAPPY that you are here.”

Then, Gianferrari had the kids partake in a pretty normal first day activity: introducing themselves and telling their classmates one thing about them.

“My name is Hansithaa, and I’m obsessed with dragons,” Keene resident Hansithaa Sreenath said as a grin grew across her face.

Activities like these will be common throughout the first few days of school, Principal Erik Kress said, not only to help students and teachers get to know each other but also to allow kids to readjust to school and continued COVID-19 protocols like masking indoors and physical distancing. Even with these health and safety measures still in place, Kress said he was excited for the first day of school.

“I think, outside of the facemasks, it feels like a completely normal year — the excitement this morning, seeing the kids come in,” he said. “... As weird as it sounds, it feels normal.”

This return to some semblance of normalcy is a welcome change for Hansithaa, who said she did not like learning remotely when Keene schools operated under a hybrid model for most of last year.

“It was slightly boring because instead of going to school every day and actually doing something, you were basically just stuck and home and not knowing what to do,” she said.

Hansithaa’s classmate, Gretchen Bettler of Keene, agreed and said she often had to do remote school work in the same room where parents worked, making classes more difficult. At the beginning of this year, Gretchen said she was excited and nervous.

“Excited because I got the teacher I wanted,” she said. “And nervous just because it’s the first day of school.”

About a mile away, at Wheelock Elementary School, Principal Patty Yoerger was feeling the same mix of emotions as she welcomed students back.

“Well I’ve been up since about 4. It’s just the ‘back to school’; it’s anxiety but it’s excitement,” said Yoerger, who is starting her 28th year as an educator. “... And after all these years — I’ve been doing this a while — the first day of school is still that ‘hard to fall asleep, early awake’ and just full of energy and excitement. It’s what we live for.”

Like Franklin, Wheelock is starting the year with a variety of health and safety measures designed to protect staff and students, who are not yet eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In addition to masking and distancing, Yoerger said schools are emphasizing the need for parents to keep kids home when they’re sick, with the ultimate goal of keeping students in class for as much time as possible.

“Our first priority is five days of in-school learning,” Yoerger said. “I really think that having the kids in that routine and that consistent environment is important.”

Kim Clark, who teaches 4th- and 5th-grade band at Wheelock, where her daughter Ellie is in 3rd grade, said she is grateful to begin the new year with full in-person instruction.

“[I’m] hopeful that we can stay in person five days a week,” Clark said. “I feel good about our plan. I think we’re putting safety measures in place to help, and we’re used to it. We did it last year, we know what to do, and we know what works.”

Amanda Short of Keene, whose twins Colin and Alexis started 3rd grade at Wheelock Wednesday, said she also hopes for a sustained return to full in-school classes.

“I’m hoping they’re here for the long haul, for the full five days, every day this year. I think that’s what everyone’s hope is this year. … Last year was a tough year for these kids,” Short said as she and her husband, Jason, dropped off the kids. “... I think the schools do a great job with keeping the kids safe. So, I know that they have the kids’ best interest in mind.”

And as the school year progresses, Kress, the Franklin Elementary principal, said he hopes elementary schools like his can safely reinstate activities like field trips, assemblies and all-school sing-alongs, all of which were absent last year due to coronavirus concerns.

“So I’m most excited, if we can stay safe, bringing back things to make school complete, if you will, and slowly building those parts back in,” Kress said. “Because school last year felt like, ‘I go to math class. I go to reading class. I log on to go to art class online.’ It was very mechanical and … it just didn’t feel good. So, I just want kids to feel like it’s a complete program, if we can do that.”

Wednesday marked the first day of classes for all schools in N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland. Moving forward, Superintendent Robert Malay said Unit 29 schools will continue to follow guidance from the state health department to help ensure students can safely remain in classes five days a week.

“I think there’s always going to be a concern, most especially when transmission rates are where they are right now, which is substantial,” Malay said. “So there should be some concern, but we’re going to follow the guidance from [the Department of Health and Human Services] so we can do what we do well, which is the teaching and learning piece.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.