Katherine Larrabee, a sophomore at Hampden Academy, attends school in person on Tuesdays and Fridays and is happy to return. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Every Tuesday morning, Katherine Larrabee boards a school bus with no more than five or six other students in tow. After a 20-minute masked ride, she reaches Hampden Academy by 7:45 a.m., sanitizes her hands as soon as she enters the building and goes directly to her first class.

After a spring semester spent learning remotely, the 14-year-old sophomore has been happy to return to the school building this fall, even for just two days a week.

“It’s been really nice just to be back in the whole school environment,” she said. “But it’s certainly been a change from what we’re used to.”

Most things about school as they knew it changed for Maine students when they returned this September, and high school students in the Bangor area are still adjusting to the changes a few weeks into the new year. Students in most Bangor-area districts are attending in person two days a week and learning online the rest, and students who spoke with the BDN said they feel safe going to school even as some schools in southern and western Maine have shifted to online learning in response to coronavirus cases.

Students have encountered smaller class sizes so they can socially distance in classrooms, and their movement around school buildings has been restricted to limit students’ opportunities to mingle and potentially spread the coronavirus. They have designated entrances where they walk into their school buildings, or they have staggered entrance times. But perhaps the biggest adjustment is that they’ve had to wear masks at school for hours at a time with few breaks.

Larrabee, who goes to school in person on Tuesdays and Fridays, has welcomed the smaller class sizes.

“If that was something that they could incorporate into a normal school year, that would be really nice, just because you’re able to get more individual time with teachers, meet new people and get to know those people really well,” she said. “I’m making friends with new people that I wouldn’t have really known if we hadn’t been in the same classes or same cohort because our school is just so big.”

Lunch period brings another set of changes.

At Bangor High School, senior Wells Mundell-Wood said she can choose either to eat lunch outside or in an area of the school with the high school’s lockers, which Bangor students aren’t using for storage this year.

At Hampden Academy, Larrabee eats at one of the individual, socially distanced desks the school has set up in the cafeteria. Her lunch time is shorter than it used to be, since the school has reduced the number of students who can be in the cafeteria at the same time and has had to add more lunch shifts to accommodate everyone.

Desks are lined up and spaced apart in the Hampden Academy cafeteria on Aug. 4. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN

At Hermon High School, seniors can leave the school if they want to eat off campus. Otherwise, students eat lunch in their classrooms, and they can remove their masks.

Siblings Eli and Lyndsee Reed, respectively a senior and sophomore at Hermon High School, have been happy to return to in-person school. To them, it feels as normal as it can given the pandemic.

However, Lyndsee Reed, 16, said she preferred the traditional semester during which she took eight classes at a time to the current setup, in which she’s taking four classes this semester and will take a different set of four classes next semester. She liked the variety eight classes offered.

Now, “it’s sometimes difficult to understand what people are saying [through a mask], and classes have been a lot quieter because I don’t think we really know what to do with ourselves,” she said.

Clockwise from left: Siblings Eli Reed, a senior, and Lyndsee Reed, a sophomore, attend school in person at Hermon High on Wednesdays and Fridays; siblings Lyndsee Reed, a sophomore, and Eli Reed, a senior, walk in to Hermon High School together for one of their in-person school days; Katherine Larrabee, a sophomore at Hampden Academy, carries her dog Digger to the car as she leaves her house on Wednesday. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

For Eli Reed, the longer classes have not been as challenging to adjust to.

“In March, April and May I hated being online and having to do the work that way because it was a lot harder to learn some classes,” he said. “I would like it to be normal, but given the circumstances, I don’t mind the schedule. It’s kind of similar to college now because it’s a lot of time management.”

Both the Reed siblings said they’d like to return full-time since their school has done a good job making them feel safe while attending in person.

Bangor is the only school district in the area that has allowed students to return to school five days a week. But Mundell-Wood, who is attending every weekday, said she would have preferred to see her school only offer a hybrid model under which students would attend school in person part of the week and learned online the rest. Instead, the hybrid setup was one of three choices.

“Originally, I was going to do the hybrid plan,” she said. “But then I learned that they weren’t physically separating hybrid kids and full-time kids, so I’m doing full time. But generally I feel pretty safe at school.”

Bangor High School students are also taking four classes at a time instead of eight, but Mundell-Wood said she found it easier to keep track of the smaller number of classes.

Senior Wells Mundell-Wood is pictured outside her home in Bangor on Sept. 23. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN

Students at all three schools are still struggling with after-school activities, be it organizing meetings of clubs online or playing sports without families cheering them on.

“It’s as normal as it could be,” Mundell-Wood said. “It’s kind of like when you go to a school for the first time. It’s different, but it’s basically the same.”

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