First-grade teacher Lency Olsen instructs students on the first day back to school at Oxford Elementary after over a year of COVID-19 lockdown, March 29, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos

All across Berkeley, students and teachers woke up early today with the nervous energy that comes with a new beginning. More than a year after schools closed due to the pandemic lockdown, 1,567 (82%) of Berkeley’s elementary students in transitional kindergarten through second grade went back to in-person classes today. Eighteen percent of student are continuing with distance learning.

The much-anticipated day was cause for celebration for many students reuniting after a year apart and for some teachers who were meeting their students in-person for the first time.

At Ruth Acty Elementary (formerly Jefferson Elementary), the stairs were decorated with balloons and messages written in chalk welcoming students back. “We can’t mask how happy we are to see you!” one sign read. Meanwhile, those who remained in distance learning met a host of new teachers and classmates today on Zoom, a new beginning for them as well, though an anxious and fumbling one for some.

Last week, Berkeleyside asked the BUSD community for volunteers to keep us updated on their first day back. Thank you to all who responded. We ended up keeping tabs on three students and two teachers today — through texts and calls, by following a family’s morning commute, observing classrooms, and talking outside the school building — to bring you a taste of what this unique mid-March first day of school looked like.

First-day-of-school jitters

Barbara Wenger eagerly looks out of the window from her classroom as families wait in line to drop their kids off at Ruth Acty Elementary in the morning of March 29. Photo: Barbara Wenger

4 a.m. First-grade teacher Lency Olsen wakes up with first-day-of-school jitters. She’s been dreaming about bringing students to the wrong place at the wrong time and suddenly being in charge of fifth graders. She dozes and wakes up again several times before her alarm: 4:40 a.m., 5:17 a.m…. “We all have first day of school butterflies!” Olsen writes in a text message.

6 a.m. First-grade teacher Barbara Wenger walks to Peet’s Coffee for a morning boost (medium cappuccino with almond milk) before heading to her classroom at Ruth Acty. After dropping off a homemade cheesecake dotted with blue flowers in the staff refrigerator, she does a little trouble-shooting: the printer doesn’t work, and neither does the automatic faucet that kids are supposed to use to wash their hands. In between fixing both, she responds to a parent who said her daughter’s been up since 5 a.m. “I’m sure she isn’t the only one,” Wenger texts back. “I’ve been up, too!”

6:44 a.m. Twenty minutes after Bonnie Mencher wakes her daughter, Tala, they are in the kitchen making celebratory pancakes. Tala, a first-grader at John Muir, is staying in distance learning and feels “excited and a little nervous” about meeting new teachers and classmates. By 8 a.m., Tala is curled up in her cozy chair listening to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. She read the entire series during the pandemic between classes and likes to re-listen to them while making art and playing.

6:50 a.m. Tia Pelz rouses her kids Toni and Theo an hour and half earlier than usual to get to Oxford Elementary by 8 a.m. Pelz expected some grogginess, but the pair are bright-eyed. Toni, a second-grader, has been counting down the days until she could go back to school and the night before, she baked banana-chocolate muffins to thank her teachers.

During the pandemic, Oxford got a new building and Toni has yet to see her new school. “What will the playground look like?” she wonders over oatmeal. Pelz filled in the mandatory health screening, clicking through the questions on her phone. Then, it’s helmets on for the Pelzes — pink for Toni, shark-themed for Theo — who bike the quarter-mile to school.

Establishing a new rhythm in morning classes

7:58 a.m. As families drop their kids off one-by-one, Olsen begins welcoming students back in the play-yard at Oxford Elementary. “There was a lot of cheering and celebrating,” said Olsen, who was touched watching students reunite with friends. “This is the first time some of them are seeing each other in over a year. Best buddies just zoomed to one other.”

Theo Pelz, left, and his first-grade classmates practice social distancing before going to class at Oxford Elementary. Photo: Courtesy Lency Olsen Credit: Lency Olson

8:07 a.m. Standing in line with his family to walk through the gates, Theo, a first-grader, recognizes one of his classmates from Zoom. Tia waves them off and realizes she won’t see them again until 1 pm. “I’m not overprotective at all, but I’ve gotten used to having them around. It’s weird thinking that I’m dropping them off for five hours and I can’t intervene if something happens.”

8:16 a.m. Theo sees his teacher, Ms. Olsen, and joins his class of 17 first-graders. Olsen passes out bagged breakfasts at outdoor picnic tables, darting from student to student to help open milk cartons and clean up a mess of spilled milk. So much for six feet of distance, Olsen thinks to herself. By 9 a.m., Olsen is in front of the class, explaining to students how to wash their hands and pick out books from the class library. Two at a time, students stand from behind the acrylic-glass shields at their desks and choose their reading material.

9 a.m. Tala logs on to Zoom for a morning meeting and sees 15 or so new faces looking back at her. “I don’t know anyone,” Tala says, disappointed. Then, she lights up when she notices an old friend from kindergarten. Students introduce themselves and Tala’s teacher instructs everyone on the day’s first activity. Tala uses an expo-marker to draw California poppies on a white-board.

Tala’s new teacher found out she was teaching distance learning just one week ago and appears new to Zoom: at one point, a first-grade student helps her navigate the online platform. “She did not have a lot of time to prepare,” said Glenn Calub, Tala’s dad, who is a little worried about the transition. Tala appears unphased. Her parents highlighted the positive aspects of distance learning, including meeting a new teacher and new students. After a break, Tala meets her new distance learning teacher for a one-on-one Zoom conversation at 10:25 a.m. to get to know each other.

9:57 a.m. A few miles away, at Ruth Acty, Wenger strums a guitar and her class of 21 first-graders sings along to “Rattlin Bog,” a folk song that Wenger taught them over Zoom. “So fun to hear the kids starting to sing together! I’ve been performing it feels like forever on Zoom and now I get to hear their voices,” Wenger wrote in a text message.

This is Wenger’s 12th year as an elementary teacher and she thrives off of her students’ energy. “So much more joy and energizing rather than depleting my energy,” she writes. Today, they’re a little shy, and Wenger gets students standing in a circle, wiggling their fingers and crossing their ankles while they tell each other what they did at recess. Wenger wanders up to a few students to hear their whispered answers, encouraging them to speak up. “O.K., do you want me to shout it?” a little girl asks. “Yes, so everyone can hear!” Math time starts with jumping jacks as students count by tens. By 11 a.m, a student has lost a front tooth while biting into a pizza and Wenger collects it from him for safe-keeping. And luckily, the sink has somehow fixed itself.

Teacher Barbara Wenger sits on the steps at Ruth Acty Elementary School. Photo: Pete Rosos

Getting into a groove in the second half of the day

10:53 a.m. Tala logs off Zoom to take a long lunch break, which means biking with her dad, Glenn, to Whole Foods to buy a loaf of California sourdough. Along the way, the pair keep an eye out for butterflies, Tala’s favorite pastime: it’s ten points for a monarch, two for a cabbage white one, and 75 points for a swallow-tail. Tala eats her lunch, a grilled cheese sandwich, during her afternoon class. After writing class ends and distance learning wraps up for the day, Tala hits Blair Park in Piedmont with her dad, on the lookout for more butterflies.

11:45 a.m. After lunch, Olsen calls a student who is staying in distance learning at the moment on Zoom, projecting his face onto the wall so his classmates can see him and ask him about his day. When the students start working on the day’s math lesson — manipulating Tangrams to understand how to make different shapes fit together — Olsen circulates the room, able to check students’ progress in real-time. “That’s the beauty of being in-person,” Olsen said.

But it’s not as simple as going back to normal. Health protocols mean that Olsen can’t reach over a student’s plastic divider and show them how to do it: “I can see that a kid is holding a pencil totally wrong, but I can’t go over and reposition their hand. I can’t rotate the Tangram for them.” Instead, as she learned to do with distance learning, Olsen has to develop teaching strategies to overcome the barriers.

1:17 p.m. Standing at the base of the steps of Ruth Acty waiting for one more student to get picked up, Wenger reflects on the day. She got through less than she thought she would, as usual, but she got to teach a method of phonics that was too complicated to do over Zoom. But it was students’ joy for learning and for one another that she said would stick with her. “What’s really different is the number of kids who couldn’t focus in class on Zoom,” Wenger said. The highlight of her day, she said, was simply watching kids playing and laughing during recess.

Theo and Toni and their dad, Philipp Pelz, have a celebratory lunch on their first day back at school at Oxford Elementary. Photo: Courtesy Tia Pelz

1:30 p.m. Back at home, Theo and Toni sip on glasses of sparkling apple cider to celebrate their first day back. Toni said she had been “a mix of nervous and excited all day long.” Other students shared a range of emotions — some were so happy, others were sad because they liked distance learning, and some were exhausted by the day, according to Toni. A friend told Toni in tears that she didn’t want to go home because she was afraid school would be back on Zoom the following day.

Toni was surprised by how different her classmates looked — they had grown up more than she expected. She loved dancing and singing along to “Down by the Bay” during music class and, of course, recess. Because each class plays on one part of the playground at a time, tomorrow will bring yet another new adventure. “I wish it was tomorrow already,” Toni said. “I’m really excited to see what we will do.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of students in transitional kindergarten through second grade returning to school in-person as 78%. It is 82%.

Students arrive by bus and bike for the first day back on campus at Oxford Elementary. Photo: Pete Rosos
A second-grade class at Oxford Elementary. Photo: Pete Rosos
Students wear masks sitting at desks with screens at Oxford Elementary. Photo: Pete Rosos
Arriving back at Oxford Elementary after many long months of remote learning. Photo: Pete Rosos
A student checks in at Oxford Elementary School. Photo: Pete Rosos
Drop off at Oxford Elementary on March 29. Photo: Pete Rosos
Elementary schools welcomed many students back to in-person classes on March 29. Photo: Pete Rosos
Health protocols, including who could come on campus, were in effect on March 29. Photo: Pete Rosos

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...