first day of school Hempfield

Students arrive for the first day of classes at Hempfield High School Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

With a 104-year-old great-grandmother at home, Manheim Township High School junior Paloma Rivera said she felt paranoid going back to school with the threat of COVID-19 looming.

But the first day of school Tuesday ended up calmer than she expected.

“It went a lot smoother than I thought it would be,” she said outside the school, holding onto her mask that she had worn throughout the day. “I was expecting absolute chaos.”

Despite a few first-day glitches, Lancaster County students, teachers and administrators said the first day of an unprecedented school year went as well as can be expected during a pandemic.

Five county school districts — Cocalico, Donegal, Hempfield, Manheim Township and Pequea Valley — kicked off the 2020-21 school year on Tuesday. Lampeter-Strasburg starts today.

For three of those that started Tuesday — Donegal, Hempfield and Pequea Valley — students primarily returned to in-person instruction for the first time since Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf pulled the plug on face-to-face learning in March.

At Cocalico and Manheim Township, elementary students returned to in-person instruction, but about half of the secondary-level students who opted for the in-person option physically attended school, with the other half online, as part of a hybrid instructional model that limits the number of students in buildings each day.

Cocalico Superintendent Ella Musser said in an email Tuesday afternoon that students were happy to be back, however that looked.

“In many ways, it has seemed like a very normal start to the year, in spite of all the changes we’ve needed to put in place,” she said.

A few students who learned online at Manheim Township experienced some technical difficulties, particularly those who were following along with their classrooms live via Zoom, district spokeswoman Marcie Brody said.

“There have been a few minor glitches with some Zoom links,” she said, “but that is to be expected as we all navigate this new school year.”

Otherwise, the first day went smoothly, Brody said.

Dan Reynolds, a social studies teacher at Manheim Township High School and president of the Manheim Township Education Association, said the first day went "reasonably well," and students were understanding as teachers juggled multiple teaching modes.

"It's clumsy trying to address two separate audiences simultaneously, but the real test will come when I get into class discussions in which I expect everybody to participate," he said. "That will be interesting."

In-person, school was a bit strange, Manheim Township students told LNP | LancasterOnline Tuesday afternoon.

Students wore masks the entire day, except for intermittent mask breaks. They were socially distanced in classrooms. Lunch was quieter than normal, as students sat, unmasked, and ate their lunch 6 feet away from others. They stuck to the right side of the hallways and went up and down the designated stairwells.

“It was weird,” sophomore Ty Jenkins said. “Way less crowded, which was kind of nice.”

“There’s a reason for everything they did,” senior Jorge Duran said. “It’s just not normal.”

Waiting outside her home for the school bus the bus in East Hempfield Township on Tuesday morning was Erica Roettger and three of her children. She said there’s always a concern for her kids’ safety, but returning to in-person instruction after months of limited socialization was the family’s preferred option.

“I think they’re ready,” she said. “They’ve been home for five months.”

But with strange times come strange questions for parents.

“What if your mask hurts?” second-grader Ryan Roettger, the youngest of five children, said.

Down the road, Tab Musser, Hempfield’s assistant superintendent, stood in front of Hempfield High School as students arrived for their first day. He said it felt great to see the “campus alive again” after months of uncertainty and a constantly evolving planning process.

“It’s very rewarding to see it all come together on day one and people making adjustments,” he said.

The key, Musser said, is not growing complacent with health protocols if a few weeks go by and the district is in-person.

Hempfield spokeswoman Shannon Zimmerman said Tuesday afternoon that the only glitches were lunch and recess running slightly behind schedule at one elementary school, and some students, who opted to learn from home this fall, experienced connectivity problems when trying to access their classrooms.

“It was a bump, and the teachers were able to work with the families to get that resolved,” Zimmerman said, calling the issues “first-day growing pains.”

Teachers rising to the occasion was a theme on Tuesday.

Pequea Valley Superintendent Erik Orndorff said the entire staff was “stepping up for the benefit of the learners.”

Abbie Houck, a math teacher at Pequea Valley High School and president of the Pequea Valley Education Association, said in an email late Tuesday afternoon that it was “awesome” seeing her students again, whether that was in-person or online.

“No doubt this year is going to be very different,” she said, “but at PV, we’re happy to meet the needs of our community by providing learning both in person and online.”

Seeing students again after five months was special for many.

“Our staff is thrilled to see students, both in-person and online, and our students seem genuinely happy to be back,” Donegal Superintendent Michael Lausch said in an email. “Personally, it warmed my heart to see our students today. I missed them!”

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