Credit: File photo

For more than a year, Aoife Devlin has only gotten to interact with her classmates online, confined to small, virtual boxes on Zoom.

On Monday, Aoife, a kindergartner at Rosemary Hills Elementary School, boarded her school bus for the first time and met her friends in person.

“I think I’m going to like in-person school better,” she said. “I’ll get to see my friends. And I’m excited because I want to go to the playground.”

Aoife was one of about 19,000 Montgomery County Public Schools students in classrooms on Monday for the first time more than a year after they were closed in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The students — in kindergarten through third grade, special education and career and technical education programs — are spread among the district’s 208 schools and join the approximately 730 students who went back to schools on March 1.

A student waves goodbye to family before going into Chevy Chase Elementary School on Monday. (Photo by Caitlynn Peetz)

The next phase of students will come back to classrooms next month.

Aoife’s mother, Lisa Devlin, said she is excited to have a “semblance of normalcy” back for her daughter, even though it will include face coverings and distancing.

She said Aoife is happy to have her own Chromebook and can navigate her online classes on her own, but she started to lose some of her enthusiasm for school as the year wore on.

Aoife Devlin boards her school bus to Rosemary Hills Elementary School on Monday. (Submitted photo)

“You can do so much with virtual, but that human interaction, and getting to play and run on the playground together, you can’t replicate that,” Devlin said.

Kim Glassman said her son, Zach, a fourth-grade student at Flower Hill Elementary School in Gaithersburg, was also excited to play with his friends again.

It’s been a long, difficult year, with “lots of tears and frustrations,” that will hopefully be alleviated with a return to a more normal routine, Glassman said.

Zach, a fourth-grade student at Flower Hill Elementary School, arrives on Monday for his first day back in more than a year. (Submitted photo)

On Monday, Zach was excited, though he had a bit of the “first-day jitters,” she said.

The school’s staff members have set a positive tone, hosting a town hall event on Friday to explain what school would look like and answer students’ questions. Zach’s teachers have also answered his questions, mostly about recess and when he’ll get to eat and have snacks.

“When your school leadership sets the tone so well, it’s hard for them to not be excited,” Glassman said.

The enthusiasm was spread across the district.

Bundled in coats, mittens and masks, elementary school students were greeted with a chorus of “hello” and “we’re so glad you’re here” as they walked up to Chevy Chase Elementary School on Monday morning.

At a bus stop down the street, three young students stood hand-in-hand with their parents, while another sat on the ground and colored in a coloring book. All four wore masks with animal or princess prints.

People hug outside of Chevy Chase Elementary School on Monday. (Photo by Caitlynn Peetz)

At a stoplight on Wisconsin Avenue, a student peeked through a bus window (open to increase ventilation) and waved at the car stopped alongside the bus.

Schools were outfitted with balloons and large banners welcoming students back. They also had signs indicating which doors children should enter through depending on their grade and reminders about the importance of wearing masks and keeping distance between themselves and others.

Asked what going back to school means to them, Margery Smelkinson’s three children, all students at Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda, said they are excited to see their teachers and friends, and avoiding “glitchy” Zoom classes.

Hannah, a kindergartner, said she’s “excited for my teacher to read us books in person.”

Next phases

The roughly 20,000 students who have returned to in-person classes make up about 12% of the MCPS student body and about one-third of the students who chose to have some face-to-face classes this year.

In the winter, the district sent a survey to families, asking them to choose between the part-time in-person option and remaining in the fully virtual model through the end of the school year.

Nearly 100,000 of the district’s 161,000 students opted to remain fully virtual, while the rest chose the hybrid model.

A sign outside of Bethesda Elementary School reminds students to practice social distancing and wear masks. (Photo by Caitlynn Peetz)

The rest of the students who chose to return to classrooms are scheduled to be brought back in phases.

As of Monday, the phases were:

• April 8: The remaining career programs, pre-kindergarten, fourth through sixth grade, and high school seniors. (The original date for this phase was April 6, but it was pushed back due to concerns about spring break-related travel.)
• April 19: Eighth grade, high school freshmen and high school juniors
• April 26: Seventh grade and high school sophomores.

Chevy Chase Elementary School staff members welcome students to school as they get off the bus on Monday. (Photo by Caitlynn Peetz)

The Montgomery County Board of Education will meet next week to discuss whether the groups scheduled to return on April 19 and 26 can be combined to return on April 19.

Board members said last week they want to evaluate how Monday’s reopening goes before making a decision.

What principals and administrators are saying

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com