ELKHART — Students at Cleveland Elementary hopped off buses and from family cars donning masks as part of a new requirement to the dress code before heading to class to embark on a new normal for the first day of school Monday morning.

Cleveland was one of 21 school buildings at Elkhart Community Schools, the largest school district in Elkhart County, to open its doors for the first day in over five months to welcome back the first wave of students under a slew of precautions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the start of the school year, 66 percent of students at Elkhart schools are physically returning to classes under the district’s “hybrid” model, which allows for two days of in-person instruction in addition to e-learning days. The rest are doing remote-only learning.

Some described the first day of school amid the coronavirus like “jitters” – nervous and excited mixed with a level of uncertainty.

“I’m definitely nervous because we’re not sure what’s going to happen,” said Alexandra Seastrom, a Cleveland parent who dropped her two sons off on Monday. “But being socially cut off the past five months, I think the kids are definitely needing the interaction. They are both happy learners in general, so just to be able to go back to school and do something different I think is exciting.”

Her sons, Hunter Pressler, a third-grader, and Phoenix Pressler, a first-grader, said while they enjoyed e-learning last spring, they are happy about returning to school in-person.

“We missed our friends,” Hunter said. “That’s who we’re most excited to see.”

Under the hybrid model, students are split into A and B groups. One group will be in the building while the other learns at home. The A cohort will be in school on Mondays and Wednesdays and the B cohort will be in school Tuesdays and Thursdays. All students will be virtual on Fridays to allow for a deep clean of the buildings.

Seastrom said trying to fulfill a teacher’s job is tough but, if the pandemic worsens, she is prepared to switch her kids to virtual learning.

“Last spring was a huge learning curve for all of us,” she said. “I just don’t want my children to fall behind because I don’t feel I have the right education to teach them what they need to know academically. Education has progressed so much since I was in school, but we’re prepared to make the switch if need be.”

To ensure the school year can maintain some face-to-face learning, all students and faculty are required to wear masks and social distance when possible. Hand sanitation will be available throughout all the district’s school buildings, school leaders said.

Katrina Healy, a librarian at Cleveland, said although she’s a little nervous, she is thrilled to be back in person and looks forward to engaging and building relations with students.

“I’m looking forward to helping them boost their literacy and finally putting books back in their hands since it’s been a while and I know that the public libraries have also been closed for several months,” she said.

“I can’t say I’m not a little nervous, I think everyone is, but I think we’ve got this,” she said. “I feel really good about the processes in place and we’re going to do our best to keep kids safe and go over the procedures and reinforcements over the next few days with students to make sure they understand.”

Cleveland Principal Kelly Carmichael said the school’s goal for the new school year is to meet students where they are and to work as a team to navigate through a time of uncertainty.

“There are so many different emotions around this and so many unknowns,” she said. “So, we’re just going to work hard to make people feel comfortable – teachers, parents and students. The students came into the building with no problems today and we’re excited to be here and want to make sure they know that we’re going to support them in any way that they need.”

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