SWANZEY CENTER — Thomas and Amelia Carlyle rode their bikes up to Monadnock Regional Middle/High School Monday morning as Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” bellowed from school speakers, and staff members stood on the roof showering arriving students in green and gold confetti.
Amid the celebratory atmosphere — which teachers and administrators organized for the first day of school — the siblings shared a quiet moment. Thomas, a 9th-grader, helped his younger sister lock her bike before heading inside for her first day at a new school, where she is in 7th grade.
Amelia, who attended Cutler Elementary School in West Swanzey through last year, said she was a little nervous, but excited, to join her brother at the middle/high school.
“I’ll just really be nervous about trying new things, because I haven’t really tried a lot of new things,” she said. “I’m really excited about learning new stuff.”
Amelia’s feelings matched the mood of the morning, according to Principal Lisa Spencer, who said she is enthusiastic that Monadnock is opening the year with all students in class. The district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — operated under a hybrid model for most of last year.
“[I’m] excited, there’s a lot of positive energy right now with the beginning of school,” Spencer said. “Everybody is excited — nervous, but excited. So, I think [everyone is] just feeling really good about having them all back together, to start that way.”
Faith Figueroa, a junior from North Swanzey, said opening the year with full in-person classes makes school feel somewhat normal again.
“I think it’s going to be definitely just another exciting year because we didn’t have a normal year last year,” Faith said. “So, just getting used to everything, I think it’s going to be a good year.”
Superintendent Lisa Witte agreed, saying the first day of school “feels more normal than not,” despite some continued COVID-19 protocols like masking and social distancing.
The Monadnock school board voted earlier this month to require masks in school whenever community transmission levels of COVID-19 are moderate or higher. Like every other New Hampshire county, Cheshire is currently experiencing substantial transmission, the highest of the state’s three tiers measuring community spread, according to the state health department.
“Everybody’s tired of wearing masks,” Witte said. “That’s not a secret. But everybody, from my perspective, understands that this is a means to an end, that this is hopefully temporary. We don’t know how long it will be temporary. And if we have to make adjustments along the way, I’m confident that everyone will be patient and flexible, because they have been for the past year and a half.”
Along with the indoor mask mandate, Spencer said Monadnock’s middle/high school is maintaining thorough cleaning practices and encouraging teachers to have class outdoors as much as possible. Like last year, students won’t have access to their lockers to reduce crowding in hallways, Spencer said, but in a change from 2020-21, middle- and high-schoolers will eat lunch at tables in the cafeteria, rather than individual desks.
“We’re limiting how many kids go at each table, but it was really important to us for them to be able to get that social aspect that lunch provides while distancing them,” she said, adding that the tables, which can hold up to eight students, will be capped at four to maintain at least 3 feet of distance.
These sorts of coronavirus precautions make Emily Lang, a senior from Troy, feel safe, though she said she would have preferred a more complete return to normal on her last first day of high school.
“I’m definitely disappointed that COVID is still a thing and we have to wear masks and everything, especially since I’m vaccinated,” Emily said. “But I think it’s still going to be fine anyways, if everyone follows the rules.”
Clayton Kulczyk was also a bit disheartened by the health and safety measures still in place, but he said they didn’t dampen the excitement of the first day too much.
“It’s certainly exciting to be back,” Clayton, a junior from Richmond, said. “Obviously, you have to wear the mask, and that takes a little bit of the fun away, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But it’s going to be nice to see friends again.”
Clayton spent most of last year learning remotely, which he said made it difficult to spend time with his peers.
“But I’m staying in this year, so it’s going to be nice,” he said.
As the new school year progresses, Emily added that she hopes her life, and senior year, will continue to regain a sense of normalcy.
“I’m really looking forward to finally being able to maybe go visit colleges, if they open up, and definitely the prom this year,” she said. “It was really great last year, and I think that by springtime we’ll finally have everything under control to make it even better.”
And while Monday marked the first day of classes for the Monadnock district, schools held a “soft opening” for three days last week, providing families and staff the chance to begin building relationships and helping students readjust to their school routines.
“I think it just sets a good foundation for the rest of the year, and being able to continue to have good communication,” Witte said. “But I especially think with COVID, it just helps everybody to feel comfortable coming back into the building, getting used to the environment.”
Schools throughout the Monadnock Region are returning to class this week, including N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland, and begins Wednesday. The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District was supposed to start today, but has delayed the first day of school by a week to give the district time to address damage to its facilities from recent flooding and humidity.