The day was overcast and the outdoor campus at Edgemont Junior/Senior High School was quiet. As the clock struck 8 a.m. a few cars began to flow into the traffic circle in front of the school where the notice board outside the gym sported a warm “Welcome back” message.

Clutching backpacks and school schedules, students sprang from the cars, their faces half hidden by the masks covering their mouths and noses.

“We needed this,” said Edgemont Jr./Sr. High School Principal Kyle Hosier. “We can’t see the kids smiling when they get out of the cars, but we know they are.”

After spending the majority of the summer planning how to safely open Edgemont Schools amid the ongoing pandemic, the district administration decided to delay the start of school to Sept. 14. On that day, approximately 450 students flooded the campus to attend the morning session of the first day of in-person classes.

Although the masks were an unrelenting reminder of the world’s current health emergency, the first day of school was a welcome relief for students who were excited to get back into the swing of things — see friends, teachers and relish the traditional classroom experience, despite the health and safety concerns and educational modifications that tempered it.

Though there was excitement, the mood had definitely shifted. Desks were spaced 6 feet apart, and students were required to have masks on at all times. Class schedules, which were usually a source of stress on the first day of school anyway, were more confusing and complex than ever.

“I was very nervous,” said Nishta Nandakumar, a junior. “Nervous about, will it work? And my course load too. But also nervous about how good my learning is going to be, because we’re not having every single class every day. We’re having it like two-thirds of the total amount of classes. That’s very inconvenient.”

In the hybrid model of instruction, students at the junior/senior high school attend school every day in split AM and PM cohorts. If a student attends an AM cohort in person, then they spend their PM time learning online outside of the school. In between each session is a transition period, which leaves time for students to go home for lunch and for school personnel to disinfect classrooms. The time is also a collaboration and lunch period for some teachers.

“Some schools are doing [it where] you’re in school for a day, [and the next day] out of school. But I like that we still come to school every day,” said Milan Gialleonardo, a sophomore who started his day learning online.

As the coronavirus swept through parts of New York in March, schools across the state were forced to close and immediately shift to remote learning. Many school districts were implementing online learning for the first time, which challenged its effectiveness.

After multiple student and parent surveys, Edgemont Schools put an array of mandates in place to make e-learning a practical and functional form of student learning.

Mandating students to keep cameras on during live instruction, for example, keeps them more accountable during their online learning.

According to Hosier, 13% to 14% of the school’s 1,000 students decided to learn fully remote this fall.

“Last year … it just kind of felt that we were doing it just because we had to … We weren’t really doing much work. [Maybe] an hour of work every day,” said Gialleonardo. Now, he said, “They’re actually doing it like you have to learn. Last year, it felt like just a replacement of school. This year, it feels like school.”

As students filtered onto the school campus Monday, they lingered for a moment at the main entrance. Administrators, donning masks themselves, walked among the small crowd of students, welcoming them and answering questions.

“Ready to do this?” asked Superintendent Victoria Kniewel to a student.

Eventually the bell rang, and students traversed the campus to their first class. A few latecomers straggled in, as they would on any other first day of school, and, before long, a hush fell over the campus. Hosier’s voice on the school’s loudspeaker echoed across the entire campus as he welcomed students to a new year.

“Please remember to wear your masks and keep as physically distanced as possible,” he said.

By 11 a.m. the sun peaked through the clouds overhead, bringing a glow across the campus. A few minutes later, students filed out of the school and the AM/PM transition began.

A white board, a large desk and slightly more than 20 chairs dotted a small patch of grass by the admin building. Kelley Morse, a chorus teacher at Edgemont for the past 21 years, sat at a desk in her sunny new outdoor classroom.

“Today it actually worked pretty well. It was just great because this was the first time since March that I’ve been able to hear my kids singing in person,” she said. “Online with the delay and the latency issue, you can’t really sing at the same time.”

Morse, who was accustomed to leading a group of more than 100 students to sing in unison, was now teaching more classes with fewer students throughout the day.

On days when she will have to hold class inside, Morse said she would teach up to 35 students spaced 12 feet apart in the auditorium. But for now, while the weather is mild, she’s giving the students an opportunity to be a little looser and less restrictive outdoors.

Teachers like Morse are also juggling two cohorts at the same time. With her computer on her desk, Morse was teaching her in-person students, while simultaneously instructing her online students.

“They looked pretty happy today. I think they’re all, for the most, really excited to be back here and be together,” she said. “They looked happy. They were singing. I was worried about [hearing them with] the masks … but it was a really great vibe today.”

As the transition period ended, a new group of 350 to 400 students flooded the campus. The PM cohort arrived with backpacks and schedules in hand, and masks on their faces — a whole new group of students ready for the in-person portion of their first day of school.

“This first day is completely different than all the other first days,” said Alex, a sophomore who asked to be identified only by his first name. “But it’s still the same. You always still feel nervous … but you feel nervous for different reasons.”

After hosting multiple virtual forums with parents, teachers and students, the district devised protocols for almost every possible situation. But, even with all the many protocols in place, the pandemic has been a challenge on many levels for municipalities and school districts across the country.

The biggest question yet to be answered is how long the district will be able to hold on to in-person instruction?

“That’s another thing that I was very nervous about,” said Nandakumar. “I don’t want to go to school and then have it all close down. I think Edgemont’s being pretty good about it honestly, but there’s only so much you can do. You can control the kids in school, but you can’t control them outside of school.”

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