ANDERSON — As the world shut down around him after spring break in March because of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, the experience solidified Anderson High School student Dacoven Kirksey’s desire to become a physician.

But he knows that in order to make the most of his education, it’s important for him to have in-person instruction, something that was not possible until Monday.

“I’m a very hands-on, in-person type learner,” the 18-year-old senior said.

Though they now wear masks, their desks are several feet apart and their school day is slightly shorter, Kirksey and many students at Anderson Community Schools’ resumed in-person instruction on Monday after the district started the 2020-21 school year virtual-only.

Kirksey said his big concern was whether his classmates would respect the district mandate that all students wear masks, but almost all did.

“I know a lot of kids my age believe the virus can’t hurt them. I don’t believe that,” he said.

Wearing masks was one of the more controversial elements of the return to in-person instruction as some parents objected that their children wouldn’t be able to breathe or that younger children will remove or swap masks. Though district officials initially planned to allow mask usage to be optional, the revised plan requires students to wear masks, expect under very narrow circumstances.

ACS interim Superintendent Joe Cronk said, aside from the excitement of finally having the students back in the buildings for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the day got off to a relatively uneventful start. ACS was the only district in Madison County and surrounding communities to extend virtual instruction at the start of the school year.

“Students were excited to see their friends and their teachers. Students were eager to talk and to get back into the school routine,” he said. “All in all, I am very pleased with our students and staff. Hats off to our educators and classified staff for all the preparations and hard work that has gone into bringing our students back to school.”

About 20% of families opted to continue with virtual instruction.

Though the ACS Board of Trustees initially agreed to bring the students back in October, public pressure led them to reconsider and plan an earlier return.

Students in grades kindergarten through four attend classes on a full-time basis, and remaining grade levels attend on a hybrid schedule in which they are in-person on some days and virtual on others. ACS officials hope all students will be able to return full-time after fall break on Oct. 19.

At Highland Middle School, students were welcomed back with a cheerful sign that said, “Welcome back Scots!”

Nicole Jones, a second-grade teacher at Tenth Street Elementary School, said after school that the day had gone very smoothly. The 18-year classroom veteran said she was able to pick up with the students in-person where they left off in their virtual education, so it didn’t really feel like the first day of school.

“They were excited and a little bit chatty,” she said. “It was busy, and it was exciting. The kids were pretty excited to be back.”

Through the virtual education, Jones already had established relationships with most of the students, though she lost eight whose families decided to remain all-virtual but gained the same number in a swap with a teacher who will remain virtual.

Jones said her greatest concern as she prepared to welcome students back to the classroom was whether they would have the kind of fun that typically characterizes a first day at school.

“I really like to have fun the first days,” she said. “I was nervous about being too procedural and not enough fun. I felt like I was going to bark at ’em all day long about where to be and what to do.”

The students were able to enjoy lunchtime even though they weren’t able to sit next to their friends as would have been allowed in the past. Health department guidelines require students to remain in alphabetical order should a later need for contact tracing arise.

“Not one child brought up COVID or being sick or being apprehensive,” she said.

The students seemed well prepared to operate under the COVID-19 restrictions, including wearing masks and social distancing, Jones said.

“They did a really good job about wearing their masks,” she said. “They made it really easy as far as listening to what they had to do and stay apart.”

Though some parents, educators and politicians have raised concerns about educational loss over the six months students have been away from the buildings, similar to the annual “summer slide,” Jones said she also believes the children have been and will continue to learn effectively. Teachers have been following state standards, and a daily 30-minute success period allows them to help students catch up, she said.

“They tend to pick up pretty quick,” she said. “I was surprised how well they were with their double-digit addition and subtraction.”

Follow Rebecca R. Bibbs on Twitter at @RebeccaB_THB, or call 765-640-4883.

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