Schools Reopen: Stories From Across Pandemic America

Across the country, students are returning to classes. We connected with hundreds of them to see how they — along with teachers, administrators and parents — are coping.,

Lunchtime at Dacula High School in Gwinnett County, Ga.Credit…Jesse Pratt Lopez for The New York Times

Glimpses of How Pandemic America Went Back to School

Across the country, students are returning to classes. We connected with hundreds of them to see how they — along with teachers, administrators and parents — are coping.

Lunchtime at Dacula High School in Gwinnett County, Ga.Credit…Jesse Pratt Lopez for The New York Times

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This fall, after 18 months of classroom closures, seemingly endless screen time, child-care emergencies and nasty political wrangling over whether and how to reopen, schools are back.

The results have been exciting, anxiety-provoking and sometimes even amusing.

In Iowa, a high school junior can’t wait to do math problems on paper again.

In Ohio, an administrator usually in charge of “teaching and learning” has become a de facto Covid czar, nervously monitoring rapidly rising case counts.

And at a middle school in Massachusetts, a boy is trying to learn to play the trumpet through a mask with a specially-cut hole.

While schools have generally been able to operate safely during the pandemic with only limited on-site transmission of the virus, the continued lack of a national system for tracking school-related infections makes it impossible to know how many students have been impacted by infections or quarantines this year. In some states where local vaccination rates are low, tens of thousands of children have already been sent home temporarily.

Below are scenes from 20 schools around the country — from kindergarten to college, in cities, suburbs and rural areas — captured over three days in early September. We would also love to hear your stories; share them here. — Dana Goldstein

Anchorage | Brooklyn | Canaan, Conn. | Cedar Hill, Mo. | Chicago | Columbus, Ohio | Dacula, Ga. | Dallas | Great Barrington, Mass. | Los Angeles | Marion, Iowa | Miami | Minneapolis | Philadelphia | Portland, Ore. | San Diego | Santa Monica, Calif. | St. Paul, Minn. | Trenton, Ohio | Winthrop, Wash.

Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Last spring, more than a quarter of American students ended the school year still learning remotely, full time or part time.

First graders who were 4 when the pandemic began and missed kindergarten are arriving at school having never before stepped foot in a classroom.

But this fall, the nation’s education system has roared back to life, in defiance of the alarming Delta variant surge.

High school hallways are again packed with teenagers, masked and unmasked.

Over three days in early September, we sent reporters across the country to capture the first days of a historic school year.

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 8

Minneapolis

7:30 a.m., Patrick Henry High School

Saxophone music fills the air as masked ninth-grade students line up outside the entrance for their first day of the school year.

The tunes are courtesy of Casey Frensz, the music teacher, who wails on his instrument from a patch of grass as Yusuf Abdullah, the principal, waves his arms and shouts welcomes to the growing crowd in this leafy North Minneapolis neighborhood.

“I’m just as excited to see you as you are to see me,” Mr. Abdullah hollers above the music. “First day of high school!”

Behind him, two female students sprint toward each other, backpacks bouncing, and collide into a hug so hard it creates a large thud, drawing laughs from nearby teachers and staff.

For the first few hours of the day, the freshmen, a class of about 300, get the school all to themselves, save for a few seniors who volunteered to help with orientation. Mr. Abdullah says it’s a transition time, with adviser meetings and a scavenger hunt, so new students can acclimatize before upperclassmen arrive.

Standing in line, thumbs in backpack straps, Makiala Moore, 14, says she’s really nervous.

“I literally just moved here a week ago,” says Makiala, who relocated with her family from Florida. “And I’ve never been in a school this big.”

As for returning to school during a pandemic, Makiala says she is less nervous; if she wears a mask (they are required for everyone in the building), washes her hands and social distances, she’ll be fine.

“I’m excited at the same time,” she says, eyeing Mr. Frensz, still playing sax. “I can’t wait to go to jazz band.” — Alex V. Cipolle

St. Paul, Minn.

10:02 a.m., Bethel University

Matt Runion, associate dean of church relations, is pacing as he reviews his notes backstage at the university’s auditorium.

He is preparing for chapel, where nearly 1,000 students will gather to worship and hear a short message before heading back to the library or their classes.

“We must be running a little behind today,” Mr. Runion, a North Minneapolis native who is donning a T-shirt that reads “We Belong to Each Other,” says, checking his watch.

Soon, hundreds of students filter into the auditorium, some of them masked, most of them not.

The turnout for the gathering — Mr. Runion later estimates 800 to 900 students — is a far cry from what they looked like last year, when attendance was capped at 250, and live-streams of the sermons topped out at 50 to 60 views.

A nervous Mr. Runion takes to the podium. “Above all, love,” he begins. “Love is the ultimate command, and everything else flows out from that love.”

Behind him, LED lights illuminate the stage, forming the words “Together Again.” — Maddie Lemay

Miami

10:22 a.m., MCA Academy

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Students during a morning recess at MCA Academy, a private school in Miami.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Sweaty and sticky from morning recess, the 10- and 11-year-olds take long swigs from their water bottles and settle in for reading class. Ella Connell shares that her sister wasn’t feeling well last night.

“Was she coughing? Did she go to school today?” asks their teacher Lara Jonasson — her students call her Ms. J — as she circles the room, squeezing a dollop of Purell onto each outstretched palm. Ella doesn’t know; her sister was still sleeping when she left the house.

“It’s OK, I’ll text your mom,” Ms. J says. “But do you feel OK?” Ella adjusts her pink bunny-nose mask. Her throat is a little sore, she says. Ms. J fills out a hall pass and Ella goes to the front office to get her temperature taken.

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Lara Jonasson, center, checks on Ella Connell. who wasn’t feeling well in class.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

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Ella eventually went to the front office to get her temperature taken. (It was normal.)Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Inside the fourth and fifth grade classroom at this private school in the Coconut Grove neighborhood, nine children sit at two rectangular tables. Blue pom-poms hang from the ceiling and the walls are lined with posters: a diagram of an animal cell, the solar system, the preamble to the Constitution. A Mooka True HEPA+ Air Purifier whirs in the corner.

Ella returns and takes her seat; her second temperature check of the day is normal. (All 62 children who attend MCA Academy get their temperature taken when they arrive.)

“Today’s power word is accurate,” says Ms. J, sticking a flashcard to the board. “Please use it in a sentence.” — Patricia Alfonso Tortolani

Columbus, Ohio

11:15 a.m., Ohio State University

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A masked dancer in Momar Ndiaye’s contemporary dance class at Ohio State University. Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Prof. Momar Ndiaye starts his dance class in a circle. Masked students share their emotional status: “I feel very overworked.” “Haven’t had a moment to chill.” “I feel like I’m on a seesaw.”

Then he bids each student to lay on the floor, eyes closed, motionless. The drums start. The tempo picks up.

Students move their fingers, then their arms, then their toes. Feet join the motion, then legs and torso. Soon the room is filled with dozens of dancers moving in swirling syncopation.

Last year, the department of dance was one of the first to return to campus. Professors used multiple rooms linked by video to keep students apart. Performances were filmed, and not performed live.

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“There’s still no touching, which is very difficult for what we do,” Mr. Ndiaye says.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

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“But constraints somewhere trigger strength somewhere else.”Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

This year, Ohio State was one of the first large state universities to have a vaccine requirement. Classes are still not the same, but students can share a space.

Samantha Marszalek, a 20-year-old junior, spent almost an entire year inside to protect her brother, who has a disability.

“It’s a big sigh of relief, mentally and physically, to be in the same room together, sharing ideas, instead of over a screen,” she says.

With a flourish of outstretched arms, Mr. Ndiaye leads the class in the art of “flying low.” Beads of sweat start to drip down into masks as students glide across the classroom.

“There’s still no touching, which is very difficult for what we do,” Mr. Ndiaye says later. “But constraints somewhere trigger strength somewhere else.” — Lucia Walinchus

Marion, Iowa

Noon, Linn-Mar High School

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Janessa Carr, Linn-Mar’s student assistance counselor, speaking to students during the second lunch shift.Credit…KC McGinnis for The New York Times

Janessa Carr, student assistance counselor, stands on a chair to get the room’s attention. “Hey, hey, hey!” she yells. It’s a large classroom, located in the high school’s learning center, packed with 30 students, standing around, talking, eating subs and chips. The students — only five are masked — quiet down as Ms. Carr talks. “Listen up, this is for anyone who is interested in ALO” — the school’s leadership club — “and Social Justice Club. And there is plenty of food here, so eat up.”

The high schoolers in the room have been back to school for two and a half weeks. Allison Peshek, a junior, is sitting at a desk in the back of the room with her friend and fellow junior Eli Beck. Last year, students were both hybrid and remote. Allison says that being back in school is sometimes harder than online, where you could use notes and teachers couldn’t tell if you were cheating. But she says that even with the notes, online math was too hard.

“I just needed someone to sit with me and explain it,” she says. “And I needed to use paper. I hated doing it on the computer.”

Ms. Carr soon introduces Sheryl Bass, a college career transition counselor, to cheers from the students. The challenges don’t end at graduation, Ms. Bass says later, noting that a graduate has just stopped going to her community college classes. “Her grandma has Covid and is in the E.R. and she’s a caretaker in the family,” she says. “Kids are still going through this.”

Ms. Carr explains the clubs and then steps down from the chair and eats and talks to the kids. Pretty soon the bell rings and the students empty from the room. Ms. Carr cleans up the empty plates and half-full bags of chips and prepares for the next group.

“Everyone is just so happy to be here,” she says before the next wave of students fills the room. — Lyz Lenz

Trenton, Ohio

2:52 p.m., Edgewood City Schools

The girls’ cross-country team is a blur of colors and ponytails as they sweat under a warm September sun. School is finished for the day, and the junior high runners outside are a carefree contrast to what is going on inside the squat brick building they pass by.

In the “war room,” Russ Fussnecker, the district superintendent, grimly braces himself for the worst. He is about to get the weekly briefing of the schools’ Covid numbers.

The statistics projected onto a giant whiteboard paint a sobering picture. Almost of a third of the district’s students spent part of the first two weeks of school in quarantine. And over the past week, 127 students in the district have been isolated at home with Covid.

That latter number is three times higher than the next school district in the county.

“I’m not sure how much longer we can continue,” Mr. Fussnecker says to Pam Theurer, the district’s coordinator of teaching and learning, and de facto Covid czar. A burly man, his beard obscured by his ever-present black mask, Mr. Fussnecker looks and acts the role of a coach, a position he held long before he was a superintendent. “I’m not sure when the local health department will just order the schools to close. We have to be getting close to that point.”

Mr. Fussnecker’s phone rings.

He again braces himself for bad news. It’s Curtis Philpot, the principal of the middle school. A former superintendent himself, Mr. Philpot is a grizzled veteran of the educational trenches here.

“We have some parents wanting to use the religious exemption,” Mr. Philpot says. After a contentious community debate, the local school board had finally passed a mask mandate the night before.

“We have to be careful on the religious exemptions,” Mr. Fussnecker says. “A lot of people are finding religion now.” He tells Mr. Philpot that he’ll confer with the district legal counsel on what constitutes a legitimate exemption.

The district is also grappling with loss. Peg Smith, who was once Mr. Fussnecker’s personal secretary and a popular district employee for 25 years, died from Covid days earlier.

“Visitation is tomorrow,” Mr. Fussnecker says.

He checks the time. There are hours to go in his day.

“We’re exhausted,” he says. — Kevin Williams

Dacula, Ga.

3:15 p.m., Dacula High School

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The lunch room at Dacula High, where a student dons a mask as she heads to class.Credit…Jesse Pratt Lopez for The New York Times

Gray clouds are gathering, but until forecast thunderstorms appear, about 50 boys and girls fill up most of the green field at this suburban school’s football stadium, as well as the track surrounding the turf.

The school of about 2,500 students has remained open into its second month because its Covid infection rate has remained low, according to Dr. Bryan Long, the principal. Dacula is in Gwinnett County, one of four Georgia public school districts that opened its doors last month requiring masks for all teachers, staff and students. That meant the boys’ football team could train its defensive line, the R.O.T.C. could march and the girls’ basketball team could run.

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Eric Reese, a coach, talks to Taj Pearson, a freshman on the football team. Taj hasn’t been vaccinated, but says he plans to get the shots. Credit…Jesse Pratt Lopez for The New York Times

(Districtwide mask mandates have since spread across the state, now covering about half of all students; four parents filed a lawsuit against the district in Gwinnett County Superior Court on Aug. 30 in a bid to get the courts to stop the mandate.)

This is the time of day students don’t have to wear masks. Just the same, Taj Pearson, a 14-year-old freshman on the football team, still thinks about the virus when it’s game time. “Other people on other teams might have Covid,” he says. He adds he’s not vaccinated, but is planning on getting the shots.

Standing at one corner of the field, Eric Reese, an assistant coach for the girls’ basketball team and ninth-grade algebra teacher, reflects on the first month of school. “Some kids come to me and ask, ‘Is the virus that bad?’ or they ask about the vaccine,” he says. “I try not to get too into it, because kids are so easily influenced. I don’t want them thinking what I say is gold.”

Although the state has recently ranked fifth nationwide in pediatric hospitalizations for confirmed Covid cases, Mr. Reese is particularly hesitant to talk with his students about vaccines. “It’s everybody’s personal preference. I just try to focus on my job: teaching algebra.” Soon he’s off to encourage his players to keep circling the field. — Timothy Pratt

Portland, Ore.

3:17 p.m., Vernon School

Inside Room 113, the first day of kindergarten is over. Salvatore Youtz, 5, who goes by Sal, and his parents gather his backpack, which is covered in illustrations of astronauts and brightly colored planets. He holds his dad’s hand as they walk toward the park across the street.

Over the past 18 months, Sal had limited interaction with other kids. Because of health concerns in the family, his parents were extra careful and did not schedule any play dates. That separation put additional pressure on his first day of school.

“Kids learn to navigate the playground with kids,” says his dad, Ralf Youtz, 49.

“It’s not even Covid, but that’s part of it,” says his mom, Jessica Funaro, 42. “It’s like, here you go kid! Hope we set you up with some resilience. We have no idea.”

As they walk down the sidewalk, Sal doesn’t say much about what happened in the classroom: how he clapped along to the “good morning” song as his classmates danced, twirling and waving their arms; how his teacher, Michele Kellar, went home sick. She took a rapid Covid test at school, which is available to all symptomatic staff and students (with written permission). It was negative.

Other events took precedence.

“I got to eat fruit snacks, and they weren’t from you,” he says as they cross the street. Ms. Funaro asks about the strawberry crackers she packed in his lunch. He liked those, too.

At the playground, he and his dad climb onto the merry-go-round, his dad pushing the metal bars around and Sal hanging on near the middle, laughing and screeching. Back in familiar territory, the family reflects on this day of firsts.

“I’m making him peanut butter and jelly for his lunches at school,” says Ms. Funaro. “I didn’t grow up eating peanut butter and jelly at all! It feels like I’m doing mom drag or something.”

Sal runs toward a play structure and climbs to the top. He leans over the railing. “I had a great time!” he says. — Emily Shetler

THURSDAY, SEPT. 9

Winthrop, Wash.

8:45 a.m., Liberty Bell Junior-Senior High School

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Liberty Bell Junior-Senior High School features outdoor “sit spots” where students can work. Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Katie Leuthauser, a science teacher, sets her clogs in the grass to mark the spot from which students can shoot a ball at a mini basketball hoop set atop a picnic table. Then, she spreads out five blankets. “Ms. Leuthauser are we going to have naps?” a student jokes.

This was first-period Advanced Placement Chemistry, and there would be a quiz game involving the periodic table. But first, Ms. Leuthauser wants to know how everyone felt about the previous day’s homework. A student wisecracks that the assignment, “was as annoying as the last one.”

Back inside, the room thrums with what Crosby Carpenter, the principal, who glides around the school in track shoes, calls “teenage energy and angst.”

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Katie Leuthauser, who teaches both horticulture and science, leads an outdoor chemistry class. Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

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In the Methow Valley, home to Liberty Bell, smoke from the Cub Creek and Cedar Creek fires have recently cleared.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

The day is also charged with the excitement of the return of sports. The girls’ soccer team had won on Tuesday, and the football team, whose members sport Mountain Lion jerseys all day long, would play the team from Concrete, a town about two hours away, the next night — the first home football game in two years.

After Ms. Leuthauser reviews scientific notation, the class moves outdoors, which they do as often as possible. “I like to not wear this thing all day, too,” she says of her K-95 mask. Students reassemble at picnic tables facing tree-dotted hills and the Cascade Mountains beyond.

Fortunately, it is a clear day in the Methow Valley (pronounced MET-how), smoke from the Cub Creek and Cedar Creek fires having recently cleared. Checking the air quality index each day, says Mr. Carpenter, “is maybe the first thing I do.”

For the chemistry quiz game, teams of students cluster on blankets to answer questions. After Team Rainbow mistakes the number of protons in aluminum, Richard Wildman, a 16-year-old member of Team Gibbons who goes by Rocco, steps up for a question. The molar mass of water, he says, is 18.016. Correct! (He rounded down.) His teammates leap to their feet and whoop. Although one encourages, “Rocco, if you make it I will give you 17 cents,” he misses the shot. The team still gets a point.

Later, Rocco shares his secret: “I just spent one week memorizing the periodic table. I was bored.” — Laura Pappano

Canaan, Conn.

9:59 a.m., Housatonic Valley Regional High School

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Danielle Melino’s livestock class at Housatonic is hands-on this semester, unlike last year.Credit…Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Danielle Melino, an animal science teacher at this high school’s center for agriculture education, can hardly be heard over the constant bleating: an excitable soprano for the goats, a sober bass for the sheep. Thunder, a miniature horse, and the alpacas Sassy and Tina — who are collectively the focus of today’s lesson in animal husbandry — keep relatively quiet.

Mrs. Melino has collected her class into this buggy, hay-strewn paddock to teach students how to monitor the health of livestock. Over the last school year, classes were alternately hybrid, then fully remote, then hybrid again, but many students stayed remote much if not all of the year. This semester has started entirely in person.

“I approach really slowly,” she says, nearing one alpaca at a time, halter in hand, “They won’t spit directly on you but they will spit at each other.”

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Students from Ms. Melino’s class — from left, Austin Bachman, Ali Bosio and Aiden Miller, all 14 — and one of the school’s alpacas. Credit…Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

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Housatonic also features a greenhouse, where students can study flora throughout the school year. Credit…Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Students take turns walking the alpacas, then horses.

At one point, Mrs. Melino demonstrates how to encourage a horse to lift its foot, and how to examine it. “What can happen if an animal has rocks stuck in his feet?” Mrs. Melino asks. “Pain and discomfort,” one girl pipes up. “OK,” she continues, “where do we check temperature?” “In the butt,” someone says. “What is the proper term?” “Rectum,” several students chime in.

There’s none of the eye-rolling or dirty jokes one might expect with teens. The school has cameras installed in the animal stalls so the whole school community can monitor mating and pregnancy over a video feed 24/7 on the school website. Excitement about livestock births runs so high, Mrs. Melino says, that students sometimes arrive at the barn to attend a birth before teachers do.

Since the school can’t abandon flora and fauna over school breaks, Ian Strever, the principal says, “Ag Ed is a four-season program.” — Laura van Straaten

Cedar Hill, Mo.

10:40 a.m., Northwest High School

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Laughs in the cafeteria at Northwest, where a renewed sense of spirit is palpable.Credit…Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

At Northwest High, about 40 minutes southwest of St. Louis, a renewed sense of spirit after a complicated year of split in-person schedules and remote learning was palpable.

“I do a question of the day with the kids — just to start off every day — and last year, it was like pulling teeth,” says Ashley Schmied, an English teacher, just before the school’s first lunch period. “People were kind of in their own bubbles. And, this year, it’s like sometimes it takes 10 minutes because everybody wants to tell me their answers.”

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Ashley Schmied, an English teacher, holds up a note she received from a student.Credit…Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

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Mason Franken, right, in Ms. Schmied’s freshman English class.Credit…Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

After lunch, in her classroom — where posters printed with inspirational quotes from the likes of Maya Angelou and Malala Yousafzai hang alongside flowers painted by one of the school’s art teachers — Ms. Schmied and her English I class work together to outline a sample five-paragraph essay with a student-selected topic: “Ms. Schmied should be the Class of 2025 principal.” Students, mostly freshmen, brainstorm topic sentences focused on how well the teacher understands kids and how she listens to both sides of a story before making judgments.

“You guys could have picked a better topic,” Ms. Schmied says while transcribing ideas to an interactive whiteboard.

“This is a good topic,” says Macy Spicer, a 14-year-old who had been instrumental in selecting it.

During the next passing period, a student on the way to her next class gave Ms. Schmied a sticky note: “You are good for my mental health. — Maddie.” The teacher shared it with Dr. Dorean Dow, the assistant superintendent of secondary schools, on a walk toward the school’s administrative office.

“Isn’t that sweet?” says Dr. Dow. “Save that and put it in your self-esteem file.” — Charlene Oldham

Great Barrington, Mass.

1:20 p.m., W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School

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Ely Richard, 13, struggles to play his trumpet through a punctured mask at W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School.Credit…Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

“My mouthpiece is permanently stuck to my mask,” whines Ely Richard, 13, to his seventh-grade band teacher, Erik Carlsen. It’s Ely’s first day ever on trumpet; he’s one of four novice trumpeters who are trying, with mixed success, to configure their mouths into proper embouchure for the horn, while wearing a mask specially punctured for that purpose. “This is very awkward,” Mr. Carlsen says, “but this is something you have to get used to.” Other students, ostensibly here to learn other instruments, do homework in the music room, waiting their section’s turn with Mr. Carlsen.

“Let’s go!” Mr. Carlsen commands, tucking a strand of his long gray hair back into the low ponytail he’s looped under his own mask. A sound akin to a plaintive flatulence resonates from the quartet.

After a go at “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” Ely announces that his lips feel “buzzy and tingly.”

“James, when’s the last time you played the trumpet,” Mr. Carlsen asks Ely’s bandmate James Tonetti, 12. “Two years.” James’ trumpet has been under the bed since the pandemic started, he explains later.

(During the months when in-person practice was impossible and since it was hard to conduct orchestral instruction online, Mr. Carlsen offered students individualized instruction via Zoom. But many families didn’t opt in.)

“OK, let’s do your best,” Mr. Carlsen says. He breathes deep, and the quartet begins to blow again. — Laura van Straaten

Brooklyn

1:15 p.m., Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy

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Teachers and staff prepare for the reopening of Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

This middle school in East Flatbush won’t fully reopen until Monday, but teachers and staff have started preparing their classrooms.

Robert Aronowitz, a social studies teacher, is setting up a “Star Wars”-themed “chill zone” in his classroom — a place for students who may be experiencing sensory overload — made up of comics that he has received from students throughout the years.

“Some kids go through their work pretty fast, so I leave some comic books over there if they have some extra time,” he says.

Guidance counselors Sidney Solomon, Liana Wilson and Raina Mapp set up their room. Angela DeFilippis, the founding principal of B.S.E.A., anticipates the counselors working extensively with students who struggled the past year.

“There were a lot of kids who thrived in the home-school environment but some kids struggled,” she says. “So we have three guidance counselors on staff and have a lot of support waiting for them.”

A bit later, Ms. DeFilippis speaks with the new staff during a meeting in preparation for opening. “I’m really looking forward to a little bit of normalcy,” she says. “One of the things that we really pride ourselves on is the small class sizes but also fostering relationships with kids. I think being here, being with the kids and having those experiences that you just can’t have remotely, is what I’m looking forward to most.” — Pierre-Antoine Louis

Anchorage

3:30 p.m., Sand Lake Elementary School

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Olivia Miller, 11, and Joe Maynard, 12, walk home from Sand Lake Elementary.Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

The gravel path from Sand Lake Elementary School’s paved playground to the street temporarily leads sixth graders Joe Maynard, 12, and Olivia Miller, 11, into a full-on debate — though not the ones you might expect.

While adults around Anchorage spar at school board meetings and on Facebook posts about the necessity of masks and vaccines, Joe and Olivia discuss a more immediate issue: encounters with a moose, engendered by a morning meeting with one.

“We’re walking and we see — kind of from a distance it looked like a brown dog but then we got closer and it looked like a moose feeding on a tree or berries,” Joe says. A debate about whether it was a mother or baby ensues. (They settle on a mother.)

Soon they pass two more Sand Lake students standing on the corner, both masked, and say hello. Sisters Mikaela, 11, and Alexis Webb, 8, usually walk home with Joe and Olivia but, just three weeks into the school year, a close contact with somebody who tested positive for Covid sent the Webb girls home and into quarantine.

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Normally, Joe and Olivia, right, walk home with Mikaela and Alexis Webb, left, but they are home in quarantine. Credit…Ash Adams for The New York Times

Moose or no moose, the first walk to school once the girls are cleared to return might not be totally carefree.

“I’m kind of nervous,” Mikaela says. “I don’t want people to think I have Covid and stay away from me.”

The sisters haven’t seen or heard of any such behavior toward kids who were quarantined but, still, it’s a worry.

Like moose, talk of the pandemic has become normal. “It’s the new topic” when they get home from school, Mikaela says.

The old topic? On this the kids agreed: What’s for dinner? — Jenna Schnuer

FRIDAY, SEPT. 10

Chicago

7:40 a.m., James Shields Elementary School

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Liliana Rosas watches as her son Alexander, 8, give his brother Erick, 5, a goodbye kiss before they go into Shields Elementary.Credit…Michelle Litvin for The New York Times

Before their four-block walk to school, Liliana Rosas, 30, gives her sons some final instructions: Turn off the TV. Don’t forget your sweater. Put your masks on.

Alexander, 8, and Erick, 5, are on the couch fidgeting with squares of silicone bubbles.

Eventually, they get their final tasks done, and leave home, holding hands all the way to James Shields Elementary, a public school in Brighton Park, a majority-Latino neighborhood that serves about 500 students, pre-K through fourth grade.

During the walk they talk about putting fake tattoos on their dad, who already is at work, for his upcoming birthday, and when they pass by a relatively new white Ford Mustang, Alexander muses: “Mommy, when I get rich I want to buy a new car.”

“I want a Lamborghini,” Erick adds. “But we don’t have money to buy a Lamborghini.”

Mrs. Rosas, who was 2 when her family moved to the United States from the Mexican state of Guerrero, wants to buy a house so they can leave their cramped two-bedroom apartment, which is on the ground floor of a duplex. That dream is out of reach, with only her husband’s job as a supermarket butcher.

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The brothers at breakfast before they leave for school. Alexander has Frosted Mini-Wheats; Erick prefers Frosted Flakes. Credit…Michelle Litvin for The New York Times

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Mrs. Rosas walking her sons to school. “They have to be extra careful with a lot of things,” she says.Credit…Michelle Litvin for The New York Times

She didn’t work last year to stay with the children, but she recently got a part-time job with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, overseeing the nonprofit’s program that places parents as teacher’s aids in area schools, including Shields.

When Alexander joins the third-graders waiting to enter school, he embraces his younger brother — both still wearing masks — and kisses his forehead to say goodbye.

Erick had cried the first two days of class and a teacher had to readjust his mask a few times, Mrs. Rosas says. Alexander told his mom he briefly slid down his mask the first couple of days because he was uncomfortable wearing it until 3 p.m.

Before saying goodbye to Erick, Mrs. Rosas adjusts his mask once more before he joins other kindergarten students waiting in another line.

“They have to be extra careful with a lot of things,” she says after leaving him. “Hand sanitizer and everything — and not be too close with their friends or play like they used to before.” — Ivan Moreno

Santa Monica, Calif.

8 a.m., Santa Monica High School

A cheerleader approaches an entrance gate at Santa Monica High School in a hurry, carrying a stepladder painted in the school’s colors, blue and gold. She sets it down to show a security officer her school ID and a “green screen” on her phone, indicating she had passed the daily Covid screening questionnaire. She’s in a hurry because it’s game day: The football team will play their longtime rivals, Venice High School.

“Are you ready for Venice tonight?” Johanna De La Rosa, the school’s bilingual community liaison, asks students approaching the gate, as she helps check students’ IDs and green screens in the mornings. That wasn’t a regular part of her job before the pandemic.

“Our teamwork on campus — it has been so key for us to all kind of really understand that we’re really a team, no matter what our titles are, and just pulling together,” she says. Most of the school’s approximately 2,850 students are also tested for Covid weekly during a class period, along with their teacher, as part of a rotating surveillance schedule.

Amara McDuffie, 14, fills out the Covid screening questionnaire on her phone as she walks toward the gate. Her first-period class is art. “It’s really fun. I don’t know anyone in the class. They’re a bunch of juniors,” Amara says. “It’s the usual class clowns, quiet kids and stuff. I think I like seeing that again.”

Students begin to pick up their pace as it gets closer to the 8:30 a.m. first-period bell.

Lara Hunter, a 17-year-old new to Santa Monica High, says she’s been told any added flurry of game day activity “isn’t really, like, a thing,” adding: “But I was from an art school, so this is, like, all new to me.” — Jessie Geoffray

San Diego

8:10 a.m., Herbert Hoover High School

It’s the end of the second week of school at Hoover High and Jason Babineau, the principal, is walking around the campus shouting “good morning” to students. He suddenly banks right and catches a flying football, then gives an elbow bump to a football player.

Next up is a group of girls holding pom-poms and wearing red and white cheer team uniforms. “Good morning ladies. You ready?” Mr. Babineau asks. There will soon be an outdoor welcome assembly for freshmen, and the drum line is already taking their places. The girls giggle a little and nod. Mr. Babineau smiles. “OK, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I appreciate you!”

Hoover High, located in City Heights, a majority Hispanic and low-income neighborhood — and one of the ones in San Diego hardest-hit by Covid — has about 2,300 students; 75 percent are Latino/Hispanic and about 7 percent are homeless.

Evelyn Navarrete Gomez, a junior, describes being back in school as bittersweet. “It’s exciting but also I’m kind of worried,” she says. “I have a 5-year-old brother who hasn’t received the vaccine.” Evelyn was a freshman when the pandemic forced Hoover to close. “I feel terrified that school might shut down again,” she says. “I’m first generation, college-bound. I got vaccinated to pursue all the opportunities the school offers.”

Evelyn is a leader of the Cesar Chavez Service Club, which has its first meeting of the year today, during lunch. “We had over 200 people sign up,” she says, beaming. “So we got a big room.” — Eilene Zimmerman

Philadelphia

8:30 a.m., Vare-Washington Elementary School

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Aazim Wallace, 6, gives his first-grade teacher, Meredith Buse, a thumbs up at Vare-Washington Elementary. Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

“Wildcats on your marks!”

Nine first graders stand up from their desks, push in their chairs, and snap to attention.

“Get set!”

Steady.

“Walking safely, go to your carpet spot.”

In Meredith Buse’s classroom, everything starts on this carpet. Bright blue and lined with the alphabet, it sits right in the front of the room. Aazim Wallace finds a red rectangle next to the letter E, while Francisco Guevara Mendez nestles onto a light green one at the intersection of K and P. Malinda Schaffer finds a red spot, and Camila Gonzalez-Gaitan a blue.

For the past 18 months, the carpet sat virtually untouched. Now, Ms. Buse pours piles of blocks in front of each kid, and they set to work. Some create long swords, others intricate bridges and towers. Some arrange the blocks by color first, others dive right in. And they’re doing it with each other.

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Jennifer Sanchez-Martinez, 6, listens to Ms. Buse. Four languages — English, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic — are spoken at home among just nine students in the class. Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

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From left, Amira Lloyd, Jason Chen, Jared Huang and Francisco Guevara Mendez do some exercise at the start of class.Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

“They struggled to open up, and we did as much as we could,” says Ms. Buse of the district’s virtual learning. “We played games, we told jokes, we sang songs. We did all the things we could do online, but not having that in-person connection and not having that physical proximity, it was really a struggle to build the community.”

That sense of community is especially important in Ms. Buse’s class, where four languages — English, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic — are spoken at home among just nine students. Ms. Buse mixes those languages throughout her lessons, a near-impossibility over Zoom. (“Escaleras!” Francisco blurts out when Ms. Buse tries to recall the Spanish word for stairs.)

On the carpet, the students use their names to study syllables. “Ma-lin-da,” Ms. Buse says, snapping on each note. “Ja-son.” Francisco joins in on the snapping, then turns to teach a classmate how to line up their fingers to create a satisfying thwack. — Bradford Pearson

Los Angeles

12:35 p.m., Los Angeles County High School for the Arts

Cheers and loud pop music echo across the concrete amphitheater at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, or LACHSA, where many of the public school’s performing arts students are eyeing this year’s extracurricular club offerings. The annual lunchtime event, known as “club rush,” is a chance for students to engage in activities or causes that interest them — many of which were born during the pandemic.

Alongside tables promoting more traditional school organizations centered around chess, foreign languages and the student newspaper, students are also promoting clubs devoted to more niche hobbies: knitting and crocheting, “Dungeons and Dragons” and even corset design.

The students at the table for the LACHSA Corset Club explain that its members would learn how to design corsets, as well as hold fashion shows and fund-raisers. Gabi Ben-Shimon, 14, says that the club was inspired by a classmate’s fascination with the fashion piece, which blossomed during the pandemic.

“It’s definitely helped people find, like, more passion for, like, different stuff that they would have never considered before quarantine,” she says.

That includes embracing sexual and gender identities. At a table promoting the club for a new L.G.B.T.Q. newspaper, Zen Sanchez, a 16-year-old senior who uses the pronoun they, explains that the previous school year also offered some students an opportunity for self-reflection.

“A lot of people came out of the closet during last year,” they say.

The newspaper’s co-president, J.J. Moore, 17, explained that he hoped to create a publication that he would have wanted to read when he was coming out.

“I could read about their experiences and get their advice without needing to out myself to anyone,” he says. “I know I would have used that.” — Lauren Messman

Dallas

1:51 p.m., Southern Methodist University

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A group of human rights degree students sit and debate in Clements Hall at Southern Methodist. They see themselves, in the words of one member, as “ambassadors of larger things.”Credit…Jonathan Zizzo for The New York Times

On a lazy Friday afternoon, a group of human rights degree students swap passionate opinions at a conference table in a small Clements Hall reading room. A flag with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on a rainbow background hangs in the window, facing outward. It is Parents Weekend.

“The anthropologists, sociologists professors are not teaching this year,” says Abena Marfo, 21, referring to the educators who have declined to teach in person (the university does not currently offer virtual instruction). “I can’t take the classes I wanted to take. I’m a senior. When am I going to get another chance to take these undergraduate classes? But because of the pandemic, they’re not teaching.

“Campbell teaches all the sociology classes and she’s not teaching. She’s high risk. If we can’t give the teachers the option of doing Zoom what else are they supposed to do? These are amazing professors.”

Bethany Bass, 21, who uses the pronouns they and their, adds: “It’s a testament to our resilience that we continue to show up and show up very well in the spaces that we’re taking up.” They are wearing a black “Demand Dignity” mask.

“It’s exhausting,” Mr. Thye says.

“It is exhausting,” Ms. Bass responds, “but I think we do great work on campus as human rights students, as ambassadors of larger things, like the gender-neutral candidates being pushed in homecoming. That is really huge. Finally.” — Marina Trahan Martinez

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