When Denver Elementary School students arrive today for the first day of school, they’ll notice quite a few differences from when they left in March.

Old-fashioned desks are back, replacing the tables meant to foster collaboration in the classroom. The water fountains are wrapped in plastic. Stickers on the floor are marked a few feet ahead of one another in the hallways to encourage social distancing. And the gym isn’t a gym anymore — it’s an extension of the cafeteria.

Denver is just one of the schools resuming in-person instruction today, as the 2020-21 school year in Lancaster County kicks off after an unpredictable – and unprecedented -- spring and summer.

Denver Elementary, which is in the Cocalico School District, will welcome back about 380 students today. Donegal, Hempfield, Manheim Township and Pequea Valley schools also start today with in-person instruction.

LNP | LancasterOnline visited Denver Elementary and Cocalico Middle School on Monday to see how teachers and administrators were preparing for a first day like no other.

“It’s going to feel different, but it’s what we need to do to have schools open,” Denver Elementary Principal Angie Marley said, standing in the gym-turned-cafeteria.

The school’s cafeteria could fit only about 50 students in accordance with social distancing, Marley said, so about 100 kids will have to eat their meals, which will be individually boxed, in the gym.

Gym class, then, will be conducted outside, except in the rain or snow, Marley said.

Recess won’t be the same, either, she said, as students aren’t allowed to touch each other, share items or climb on the playground.

In the morning, buses will let students off two at a time and an arms-length from each other, Marley said. Colored circles have been painted on the ground at the school’s entrance so students who walk or are dropped off and arrive early know where to stand or sit.

Inside, teachers are preparing for a school year filled with unknowns.

Becky Culbert, a fourth-grade humanities teacher, said many classroom rituals have been upended by COVID-19. Less group work. No more reading on the carpet in the back of the room.

Her room is now filled with desks, separated by 3 feet. On each desk is a pencil box and an assortment of supplies: pencils, crayons, colored pencils, a white board, markers, scissors, a ruler and more. That way students don’t have to share with one another.

In front of the desks, all facing the same direction, is a 6-foot buffer so Culbert can move around in the front of the classroom. A plexiglass divider sits on her desk for when she works with students one-on-one.

Culbert, who’s in her 21st year of teaching, has been forced to think of new ways to make learning engaging while at a distance — like bringing her classroom outside, for example.

“It’s like your wheels are constantly spinning,” she said.

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