DERRY — It's a back-to-school year like no other as students in Derry climbed aboard buses or into parents' cars Monday to head to the classroom.
Students in kindergarten and first and second grade bounded into elementary schools during the morning first-day rush, but with extra safety measures and protocols in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That included keeping their masks on.
The Derry district's phased-in approach is sending certain age groups back to classrooms in stages.
Students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, along with sixth-graders, started the new year Monday, arriving at school either on buses or in family vehicles to be ushered into buildings to their classrooms.
Students in grades three, four and seven will have four days of remote online learning from home to start the year, followed by their first day in classrooms Sept. 8. Students in grades five and eight will have six days of remote learning and then their first day in classrooms Sept. 10.
The School Board approved a school reopening plan at the end of July, with various updates being put in place since then as opening day approached. That included updates for how to screen the health of students and handle any potential COVID-19 issues, and also making masks mandatory.
Families also had the option to choose total remote learning — children doing all school work online from home.
Students who returned to classrooms Monday were greeted by teachers and other staff who guided the children inside schools. There they found classrooms with safety distances between desks, plenty of hand sanitizer and signs guiding students on how to handle the day safely.
Students also remained in designated groups or "cohorts'' during the day.
Amanda Baxter of Derry has two children in the School District — a daughter attending West Running Brook Middle School and a son at Derry Village Elementary.
Baxter also is a substitute teacher in the district.
"I'm a bit nervous," she said, adding she has family members who are medically compromised and who she worries about.
But, Baxter added, she has faith in the district's hard work to make schools safe for students' return.
She said she has been teaching her children the importance of wearing a mask and that it will be a major shift to keep the mask on all day while at school.
"I get it — it's hard," she said.
Baxter said she has concerns about going to school buildings on days when she is called to be a substitute teacher.
"But every day will get easier," she said. "I'm confident Derry really has it together, and it makes you feel better knowing Derry gave us a lot of options. Nothing will be perfect."
In a message to students, Derry Superintendent MaryAnn Connors-Krikorian said teachers and staff were ready for the new year.
"We are ready to take great care of you," she wrote.
High school students from Derry and all of Pinkerton Academy's towns also headed back to classrooms this week, with a hybrid method in place.
That model calls for students to be in cohorts or groups labeled "red" and "white" learning in classrooms on alternating days and doing remote learning on the other days.
Some students also chose to learn with an all-remote learning option.
In a statement on the school's website, Pinkerton Headmaster Timothy Powers thanked students and families for their patience and hard work during this unique time.
"To our remote learners, you are certainly missed," Powers said. "While you are not with us on campus, you are all an integral part of our campus community and we look forward to the day when we are all back on campus together."
Powers said the new schedule will take some getting used to, and that Pinkerton will continue to offer regular information by email and on social media to keep families updated. Teachers will also communicate with remote-learning students about specific class procedures.
Other regional school districts are using similar school-opening methods, putting plans into place that combine classroom learning, hybrid options and a remote learning from home option. Districts are offering various starting dates for classroom learning or remote learning.
The Londonderry School District is scheduled to begin classroom learning Sept. 8 for students in kindergarten through grade eight. High school students will follow a hybrid schedule — a mix of classroom and remote learning days each week. Families were also given a total remote learning option for their children.