CAMBRIDGE — The mood was festive on a street corner here Wednesday, as two smiling sisters joined thousands of middle-schoolers across the state in returning to school for the first time since the pandemic began.
“I’m excited to see my friends — I haven’t seen them in a really long time,” said Colette Kennedy, 11, her eyelids sparkling with celebratory glitter, as she waited for the bus to Cambridge Rindge Avenue Upper School. “I hope it’s not too stressful.”
Wednesday was the state’s deadline for middle schools to offer five days a week of classroom instruction. It marked an important milestone in the state’s effort to fully reopen all public schools this spring.
About 190,000 of the state’s 213,360 students in grades 6, 7, and 8 are now attending schools that offer full-time in-person classes, state officials said. Nineteen districts — including Revere, Worcester, Springfield, Lynn, Sandwich, and several charter schools — received waivers to return by May 10.
While many school districts have offered in-person learning for much of the year in “hybrid” models that mixed online and classroom instruction, many larger districts, especially in cities hard-hit by COVID, struggled to return most students to classrooms until recently.
Reopening efforts kicked into high gear last month, after Governor Charlie Baker’s administration began ordering districts to provide five days a week of in-person learning. Most elementary schools fully reopened by April 5. The administration on Tuesday said high schools must return full-time by May 17.
“Being in the classroom is the optimal place for our students to be,” Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday. “We believe it’s critical to get all of our kids back with their teachers and their peers to learn and socialize — and to have a chance, in this very long and difficult year, to be a kid.”
Of about 400 schools districts statewide, 146 already have students in all grades fully in person, according to the state. Families can still choose to stick with remote learning through the end of this school year.
In Boston, more than 23,000 students in preschool through eighth grade returned to fully in-person learning on Monday, the first day Boston public schools had been open full time since March 2020.
Parents across the state are celebrating the state’s moves to require full-time, in-person learning opportunities, said Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, a parents advocacy group that lobbied the state to reopen schools.
Many students badly need the academic and mental health benefits they get from being in classrooms, she said.
“This is a moment of joy for a lot of parents and families,” Rodrigues said. ”You see the sparkle return in your kid, even in the couple of hours after returning back from that first day of school. Even though it’s weird and life is not normal, it’s a step towards normal.”
In Cambridge, where 680 middle-schoolers were expected to return Wednesday, about one-third of students’ families have opted to stay in remote learning, school officials said.
Across the country, families’ preferences have varied widely by grade and by race, with students of color and older students more likely to continue learning from home for a variety of reasons, including safety concerns and distrust of school systems. In Boston, just 35 percent of Asian-American students were expected to return to classrooms, a district survey found, amid concerns about both the virus and racism. Meanwhile, the district expected about 59 percent of Black and Latino children and 72 percent of white children to attend school in-person.
Cambridge didn’t release a racial breakdown of family preferences, but Superintendent Kenneth Salim said more older students opted for remote than younger ones, which he attributed to a preference for independent learning.
“We respect their choice, and we always talk about the benefits of in-school learning,” said Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. “With remote learning, our goal is for it to be robust, but it’s a different experience being in-person.”
Salim said the reopening plans involved logistical and scheduling challenges, but he was excited to see students return full-time. Students are clearly eager to reconnect with one another, he said, noting that more students signed up to play sports than ever before.
“It’s huge, just the opportunity for students to be with their peers, be with their teachers before the end of the school year, and also as a way to just have this opportunity before next fall,” Salim said.
Though it was April 28, it felt like the first day of school for many middle schoolers in Cambridge, where until Wednesday, only a fraction of students had been in schools. At Putnam Avenue Upper School, 160 of the school’s 281 students were expected to attend in person, up from around 30 students who had been in classrooms previously, said principal Mirko Chardin.
“It feels like we’ve time-warped into September,” Chardin said.
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, heard from educators across the state who were thrilled to finally see their students, meeting some in person for the first time.
“This is why we become teachers,” she said. “We care about our students, and we miss them when we’re not with them.”
Some students welcomed the shift.
Adam Asekkour, 12, a sixth-grader at Putnam Avenue Upper School, said he’s been attending Thursdays and Fridays and was thrilled to be back five days a week. He looked forward to his favorite part of the school day, eating lunch with friends, after Ramadan ends.
“Being at home is not the same,” he said. “You’re on the computer for six hours a day, and you don’t have time to socialize with your friends.”
But other students said they weren’t happy about returning to pre-pandemic rhythms. Sdal Kashif, 13, a student at Rindge Avenue Upper School, said she preferred the hybrid model she used to have in Cambridge, which brought her into school two mornings per week and gave her more freedom.
“I would’ve been fine with five days if they were all half-days,” Kashif said. “I like going home for lunch.”
Reopening schools safely has required extraordinary effort; districts have spent significant time and millions of dollars establishing COVID testing protocols, deploying air purifiers and repairing windows to improve ventilation, and meeting teachers’ demands for other safety measures.
On Wednesday, Siddiqui said all that work was clearly paying off — for adults and children alike. Holding a sign that read “Welcome Back to School!” Siddiqui greeted one of the city’s health advisors, Boston University epidemiologist Helen Jenkins, as Jenkins brought her second-grade daughter to school.
“Welcome back!” Siddiqui told her.
“So nice to see you in person,” Jenkins said. “Not just a head on a screen!”