SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- It was a "first day" unlike any other in the history of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood SPFK12 school district. Typically, this rite of passage occurs in September with kids dressed in shorts - some of whom are clinging to their parents. But this year, of course, is different. The kids are in coats and more than ready to see their teachers and their friends. 

Grades K-6 are the first to head back into the classrooms for hybrid learning. Under the current configuration, the students are in two sets of cohorts, which means that at a maximum, the buildings would be half-full. However, many parents opted to keep their children home, as is allowed under Gov. Murphy's executive orders, so the number of students actually returning to their classrooms was much less. But that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the returning students. 

"I'm happy to see my teacher," said third-grader Jordan Ritter as he walked into Coles Elementary School with his brother, Brandon, a fourth grader. 

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"As the time goes on and the positivity rate goes down, attendance is going to increase. The kids will hear how great it is to be back," said SPFK12 superintendent Dr. Joan Mast, who was in high spirits and optimistic for the future.

"We are moving forward until June. We want to be fully open by then," she added. "Hybrid is harder to multitask, and there will be a transition. We are well positioned to have a good year."

Dr. Mast stressed that schools are not only for academics, they are important for social and emotional development, and they are important to the economy.

"Why weren't teachers at the top of the vaccine list, I don't know. But I am grateful that we have a vaccine and that it is being distributed," Dr. Mast said. "I feel a sense a joy from the children and feel the energy of the teachers. We know we are operating in a way to keep us safe. I feel optimism that we can continue with in-class instruction."

"In order for this to work, people have to follow guidelines (wearing masks, washing hands, staying home if you are sick)," Dr. Mast stressed. "One kid or staff member who comes in when they are sick could shut down a class or classes. This isn't about indivdualism, it's about protecting the community."

Dr. Mast reminds people that 50% of those who have COVID are asymptomatic.

"It's important to protect each other by keeping our distance and wearing our masks," she said.

"It was a great day."

"They're all excited to be back. You can see their smiles. They are really happy to be back," said Evergreen School principal Colleen Haubert. 

Hailey Thomas and Chloe Thomas told their mom, Ashley, and Dr. Mast that the best thing was seeing their friends again. First-grader Julian Mohabir echoed those sentiments.

"I was exited. I wanted to go back. I had a good day at school today," Julian said. 

Equally pleased today was Danielle Wildstein, a parent who has been outspoken in her belief that children should return to school.

"Lucas went home from Coles (second grade) today and said: 'It was awesome!'," Wildstein said. "It was a great day all around -- a very emotional day."

"I have high hopes and strong confidence that our schools will remain open," she said. "That's based on continual data about school safety. It will be an even better day for those who are going back for the first time since March."

Students in grades 7-12 begin returning to school on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

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