HELENA — Monday morning was an exciting moment for Helena Public Schools students, families and staff: a first day of school that looked much closer to the pre-pandemic normal.
Thousands of first- through sixth-graders, along with freshmen at Helena High and Capital High and all Project for Alternative Learning students, returned to classes on Monday. They’ll be attending in person five days a week, though masks will be required.
At Jefferson Elementary School, teachers began the day outside, giving students and families a chance to take first-day photos, since parents weren’t able to come inside.
“Couple of tears of parents that are saying goodbye for the first time, but by and large, kids were really excited to be here – many cheered on their way in,” said principal Lona Carter. “I think that everybody is excited to have kids back in school.”
Grant and Emily Rodway arrived with their son Jack, who was starting first grade at Jefferson.
“He wanted to be here about an hour ago,” Grant Rodway said.
This is Jack’s first year in Helena Public Schools. Last year, he went through a private Montessori program – meaning he didn’t have the same experience with hybrid learning that other students did last year.
“We thought that was going to be too challenging in kindergarten,” said Emily Rodway.
The Rodways say they’re looking forward to a more typical year.
“I think he’s excited just to meet some new friends and have some more fun on the playground,” said Grant Rodway.
Ginny Emery brought in third-grader Evelyn, who she says was feeling a little nervous.
“I told her that nerves on your first day of school, any year, are normal,” she said.
Emery said hybrid learning was challenging for Evelyn, and she’s ready to spend more time in the classroom this year.
“I think for her, part of the joy of learning is just being around her peers and getting to enjoy that social environment,” Emery said.
Carter said the last year and a half has been difficult – not only for students, but for educators as well. She said they’re grateful for the support they’ve received from the community.
“This year, being back at five days a week, a normal schedule – really by and large feeling like a much more normal year, I feel like we’re going to see students make great strides,” she said. “Our families are super happy to have them back, and teachers are thrilled to have them back in the classroom.”
There has been some division in the community over the mask requirement. A number of parents have spoken out against the policy at school board meetings, saying it was unnecessary and could negatively impact students.
Carter said, so far, she hasn’t seen extensive objection to the requirement from Jefferson families. The Rodways and Emery said they support having kids mask up in school.
“We can never know if we did too much, but we’ll certainly know if we did too little,” Emery said. “To me, it’s a small thing; for my kids, it’s always been normalized in our household, and so they just don’t even think about it.”
Seventh- and eighth-graders and the remaining high school students will return to class Tuesday. Kindergartners’ first day will be Thursday.