Smiles shine on the first day of school.

Teachers and other staff greet students with warmth and a bright smile.

Sure, students might exhibit some nerves on the first day, but many kids are happy to get back into a routine and see their friends after the summer.

This year, smiles weren’t visible. Teacher and student smiles were hidden beneath masks.

On Monday, the first day of school for Region 12, I limited my stops for photographs for the paper. Normally, I bounce around to multiple schools and bus stops to capture the excitement of a new academic year.

But given the pandemic and safety precautions, I only visited Burrnham School in Bridgewater, a K-5 school.

It was anything but a traditional first day of school from what I saw outside the school that has a small student population.

Only a handful of students arrived by buses. The rest were driven by family.

Staff wore masks and face shields to greet the young students, who followed the markers on the ground placed 6 feet apart for social distancing and had their temperature taken before entering the building.

A sign on the main door cited reminders about social distancing.

I looked around me — it was surreal.

As I watched the kids, each one of them masked, look out the bus windows and meet staff outside before entering, I wondered what they must be thinking.

Were they nervous or scared about attending school at this time, and like this? Will it be uncomfortable for them to wear a mask all day (except for mask breaks)? Do they have any understanding about the world we are living in right now? How will this affect them long-term?

Some of the kids looked a bit apprehensive, at least to me.

Most of them easily accepted having their temperature taken and walking into the building, but their eyes didn’t seem to convey the usual first-day-of-school jitters or excitement. Their eyes said something different.

Was it fear or confusion, or both, as they tried to process this new “normal?”

It wouldn’t be unexpected if that were the case. After all, this is a first: Students are beginning a school year during a pandemic.

Students in the area spent three months doing remote learning the last part of the 2019-20 academic year. But starting a year — many of them, like Burnham School and others in Region 12, in the classroom — is all new.

The same goes for teachers and other staff.

This year is certainly different. Other schools in the region will open their doors in the coming days, too, and we will see how everything goes.

I know one thing is certain. Teachers and and other staff members are going to do the best they can to welcome all students back to the classroom, and do so with care, love and safety in mind to make the best of the cards we have been dealt.

Deborah Rose is a lifelong New Milford resident who has worked at The Spectrum since its inception in 1998. She can be reached by email at drose@newstimes.com.