MILFORD — Witnessing the fourth-graders eat lunch at Woodland Elementary School is a bit like viewing a surgical room filled with tiny doctors operating on sterilized tables. The children all wear masks unless they are currently, at that moment, eating a pizza bagel. There is ample space between each child.
In a nearby classroom, each third-grader sits next to an empty desk, as if haunted by the ghosts of Cohort A. It’s extremely hard to whisper or pass notes from 6 feet away, so the classroom is spectacularly quiet. Bright green tape indicates which direction to walk through the hallways.
The Milford Public Schools opened for hybrid learning on Thursday, a few days before most schools in the state. Finally, after months of agonized planning by adults, kids were back in classrooms, ready to provide insight on in-person learning (thrilling), Zoom (boring), masks (complicated), recess (still pretty great) — and everything else about a school year that will be unlike any before.
“I don’t know if I made friends, but I think I did,” said Ana Viera, who is 8, reflecting on her first day back at Woodland. She was on the playground, surrounded by a group of girls with whom she had been gleefully playing a few minutes before. She said the confusion had arisen because she would typically ask someone to be friends, but this year, she hadn’t.
“Probably because of the corona, you can’t really talk to people,” another girl, who, to an outsider, appeared to be Ana’s friend, offered.
“Probably because I’m shy too,” Ana said. Then the group called her back to the playground’s spinning wheel and she was off, racing to spin it as the girls sitting on it shrieked with joy.
Artwesty Tacuri, 9, was “so happy” to return to Woodland — he had missed his friends and his teachers and his math class, where he likes “adding the numbers” — but he had concerns of his own.
“When I got off at my school, I was so scared," said Artwesty, who was wearing an adult surgical mask with the ear bands twisted to make it fit. “I didn’t know if people were going to recognize me, cause I was with a mask.”
Artwesty’s anxieties turned out to be only fleetingly justified.
“I said hi to my friend four times,” he said. The friend did not respond. Finally, when they went on a mask break, “he recognized me,” Artwesty said, grinning.
The children used to be able to play on all the playground equipment, but this year, each class is assigned to a certain section for a few weeks at a time. Artwesty and his friend spent part of their recess looking longingly at an orange rope structure in a different section. They hoped to get to it in the next rotation.
“Next Thursday,” Artwesty said, with optimism. A few minutes later, he and his friend were scrambling up a plastic plank together on the assigned play structure, the orange one momentarily forgotten.
Much of the first two days of class were spent reviewing the technology that will be central to the school year. Cohort A had started remotely, and will be in school on Mondays and Tuesdays, while Cohort B will learn at home on those days. Wednesdays are all-remote, so the school can be cleaned.
In a third-grade classroom, Alex Ohannesian led 11 students through some community-building exercises. Ohannesian was attempting to build a cohesive classroom across two different sections, where the students might never see one another in person.
“There are some kids here that you probably don’t know, because they’re not here today or yesterday. . . when will we see those other kids?" Ohannesian asked the class.
“On Zoom,” a student said.
“That’s why our first Zoom is going to be pretty cool,” Ohannesian said.
After the first day of school, Laraine and Francesca Veo contemplated the experience in their garage, surrounded by the detritus of summer — bikes, Barbies, plastic shovels. The day had gone well, the sisters agreed, though it was certainly strange.
Laraine had entered seventh grade at Stacy Middle School; she had stayed up the night before wondering what the day would bring.
“I feel like everyone was kind of nervous," she said. She had been given a schedule that almost looked like a prank: Thursdays and Fridays were filled out with grids for Spanish, English Language Arts, and Pre-Algebra, while Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays were entirely blank. (She’ll get a remote schedule for those days when she has her first Zoom meeting.)
“Since we haven’t been to school in so long, I really wanted to see my teachers,” she said.
They had spent the day going over logistics, beginning in social studies, where the students learned what to do in the case of a crisis that occurred in the midst of the current crisis.
If there was a lockdown, the students should shut the window and shut the door, Laraine said.
“We would go to a spot, but it [would be] kind of hard because we would have to be social distanced," she said.
Francesca, who goes by Frankie and is in fourth grade at Woodland, had long wanted to be in the same class as her best friend. And she finally was. But in a cruel twist of fate, her friend wound up in the opposite cohort, and so Frankie is now in the same class as her friend’s empty desk.
Indeed, that captured a lot of what it was like to go back to school during the pandemic — you were tantalizingly close to being with your friends but still removed from them.
Still, Frankie was thrilled to be back.
“First day is probably my favorite day of the school year,” she said. “You get to get dressed up and meet your teacher.”
For some kids, this year, at least that hadn’t changed.