NEW MILFORD - A steady stream of cars dropped off students at all five of the town's public schools Tuesday morning for the first day of classes.
"We're thrilled to be back," New Milford High School Principal Greg Shugrue said as he helped direct traffic near the front door of the school. "It's been a long time."
The district closed its doors this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. Students worked remotely for the remainder of the school year.
Schools opened this week under the hybrid model, with half of the student population attending school in person on Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Thursday and Friday. Everyone will use remote learning Wednesday.
"We've done a lot of work to prepare for this day," Shugrue said. "And it's great to see the kids walking into the building."
Large partitions with clear screens separating students in small groups were set atop each of the cafeteria tables at the schools, allowing students to see one another and talk.
Signs with reminders about maintaining social distance and keeping masks on were posted outside on school sidewalks and inside the entries of the schools as seen from the front doors.
Painted stars, buses and other symbols lined the sidewalks of the elementary schools, guiding students into the doors and indicating a safe social distance.
A bottle of hand sanitizer sat on a stool near at least one entrance of Northville Elementary School, and hand sanitizer was available at various locations at each school.
Staff and students were masked, and some staff wore gloves.
Jennifer Meyers, assistant principal at Sarah Noble Intermediate School, praised the teachers for their creativity in decorating their classrooms.
In a typical year, classrooms have fun and colorful decorations. But this year, teachers took it to another level to "make it feel even more warm and cozy based on the guidelines," Meyers said.
Interim Superintendent Paul Smotas joined New Milford Police Chief Spencer Cerruto to greet families outside Northville.
"Things went smoothly," Smotas said after monitoring the student drop-off area, where parents stepped out of their vehicles and helped their children adjust their masks and put on their backpacks.
Police were stationed on Hipp Road between Schaghticoke Middle School and Northville to oversee the traffic flow for the start of school at each building.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Alisha DiCorpo joined administrators and teachers welcoming students back at NMHS and Hill and Plain School.
"The children appeared happy to be back at school and were wearing their masks as they exited the buses," she said.
"As I entered the high school classrooms, the teachers were balancing the students who were working remotely with those students who were in class," she related. "As this certainly requires careful preparation and thought, our teachers and students were ready to begin and were doing a nice job trying to teach/learn in either setting."
Meyers described the students as "off to a great start, keeping 6 feet apart and following the rules" in place.
"There are a lot less kids, but they're having a great time," she said, noting she was watching the third-graders play at recess around noon.
The district has 3,778 students enrolled as of Sept. 1. The number of students enrolled in hybrid and remote learning were unavailable Tuesday morning, according to Smotas, who described them as "fluid."
He said the exact numbers won't be available for a few days, or even weeks.
Smotas said as of last Friday, many parents hadn't yet decided what method their children would take for the academic year.
"People wanted to wait to see how things went," he said. "And so many variables go into a parent's decision."
About 12 teachers did not return to the classroom for the start of the year. Some of them are out under the Family Medical Leave Act.
"It's been a long six months and the kids deserve and need to be back in school," Smotas said.
"It's so nice to have the faculty and children back," DiCorpo said. "I'm looking forward to seeing cohort B students in person later this week."