Middle school principal Jason Richards was outside of Brewer Community School welcoming students back and directing them to the correct entrance door on Thursday for their first in-person day since March. . Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Matt Fern and his daughter Sophie walked up to the front door of Brewer Community School on Thursday morning. Fern hugged her and watched as she walked in for her first day of kindergarten.

The gesture was typical for a first day of school, the only difference being they were both wearing masks.

The Brewer School Department reopened its schools Thursday for the first time since March. The school system will use a hybrid model that combines in-person learning and online education, with students split into two groups and attending in person two days a week on different days and learning online the remaining three days. With the student body split up, Brewer Community School only opened its doors to half of its 1,000 students on Thursday.

Fern, like other parents across the country, has been juggling parental responsibilities and playing a larger role in his daughter’s education since March, when the coronavirus shuttered schools.

“It’s not the same at home, being the parent and teacher,” Fern said. “She just misses seeing her friends, and the structure.”

(Clockwise from left) Matt Fern hugs his daughter Sophie before she goes in to Brewer Community School for her first day of kindergarten on Thursday; A teacher and student stay distanced as they walk down a hallway; Laurie Richards, first grade teacher, talks with Abigail Palmer on the first day of school (Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN)

Middle school Principal Jason Richards and elementary school Principal Allison Kahkonen, along with a few other staff members, welcomed students back to school six months after they last saw them.

Around 8:15 a.m., kindergarten and pre-K students walked into the school lobby wearing masks, some still holding onto their parents’ hands. The older students had already entered the building, following staggered arrival times the school department set up to prevent large groups from gathering.

As students entered, staff asked each of them if they had completed their daily COVID-19 screening — a list of questions asking how they were feeling and if they’d had any symptoms associated with COVID-19.

After staff made sure every student had been screened, students sanitized their hands at automated hand sanitizer dispensers and entered school for a surprisingly normal first day.

Even though the students will wear face coverings and sit farther apart in classrooms than they would in a typical school year, they returned this week to a school routine with classrooms, friends and teachers.

Although more than 90 percent of students have opted for the hybrid model, about 9 percent are learning exclusively from home. On Thursday, Jennifer Becker sat in her empty second-grade classroom, holding up teaching material to her laptop for students at home.

“Brewer had an interesting problem where we had so many staff members coming into work that we had to ask for volunteers to work with students who are home,” Superintendent Gregg Palmer said.

In the school building, Brewer has made a few significant changes to limit movement around the building. Instead of students eating in the cafeteria, Brewer Food Service Director Sandra Hodgins and Kitchen Manager Mary Johnson wheeled carts full of breakfasts through the hallways, stopping at every classroom entrance to hand out meals.

Students are still storing personal belongings in lockers this year, but students attending school on the same day have alternating lockers to avoid crowding the hallways.

Brewer didn’t remove desks from classrooms, but spaced out students to leave empty desks between each person.

Brewer students had their first day of school on Thursday, when about half of the student population from grades Pre-K to 8 attended school. This year, Brewer is following a hybrid model where students are split into two groups, and each group attends school two days a week in person, and learns remotely the other three. (Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN)

They serve as physical barriers, Palmer said, and if social distancing rules are relaxed, more students can easily be added to classrooms without changing the physical setup.

“With eight to 10 kids in a room teachers can really focus on them,” he said. “You’re having a conversation with each one of them, and kids need that interaction.”

Middle schoolers can still move around the building in their designated groups to attend different classes, but elementary school students will mostly remain in their assigned classrooms.

All grades have scheduled time outdoors, where students will continue wearing masks.

Based on the first few hours of school, students did not seem to have trouble keeping their masks on, except while eating breakfast. As a group of students walked from one class to another, they also stuck to a single file while maintaining a few feet between them.

“People say kids don’t wear masks, but they absolutely do,” Palmer said, observing a group of students. “They have gotten it down.”

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