Thursday marked the first day of school for students across the Island, but this year, backpacks and school buses were traded in for Chromebooks and webcams, as students of all ages resumed their studies from home yet again, following a summer of relentless planning for teachers, administrators, school committee members and parents.

High school is still on remote learning, but outdoor classroom space is set up. — Jeanna Shepard

Schools in each district on the Island have set their plans for a multi-week phase-in process, with elementary and middle school students preparing to phase back into the classroom over the course of the fall.

On Thursday school began remotely for all but those designated high-need. Students in kindergarten and first grade will return to classrooms in two weeks, followed by students in grades 2-3 two weeks later, 4-5 after that, and all remaining students closing out the phase-in period on Oct. 29.

Under the multi-district-approved plan, come October, students K-4 will be back in the classroom four days a week while those in grades 5-8 will return for one day per week of in-person instruction. In a slight pivot from the rest of the Island, the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools will have students in grades K-5 back to school four times a week and students 6-8 back twice a week by the end of the fall.

The high school will remain almost entirely remote until the end of the first quarter in November, though assistant principal Jeremy Light said this week the school is looking to bring students to campus in socially distant, outdoor capacities when possible this fall.

But while plans for the long-awaited return to the classroom are now officially underway, many more details of the year remain murky, as parents, school officials and committee members convene weekly to bring the question of what lies beyond reopening into sharper focus.

An all-Island school committee meeting is scheduled for Thursday night, with the committee due to vote on a mask policy and a Covid testing program for students, among other things. A comprehensive testing program for all students and staff has been under study since early in the summer. The proposal was first raised to the all-Island committee in August by Dr. Jeffrey Zack, a hospital physician and medical advisor on school re-opening. Under the plan, each school building on the Island would acquire a testing machine. But the program is expensive, and how it would be paid for remains unsettled.

Also, amended teacher contracts, required due to so many changes this year, remain incomplete. A short-term agreement was struck for the start of the school year, but that was due to expire today. According to the school’s collective bargaining agreement with the union, the school is legally obligated to try to reach an agreement with teachers concerning their contracts when working conditions change drastically. A meeting of the all-Island negotiating subcommittee is set for Friday at 5 p.m.

Edgartown second grader Heloisa Borges with her mom Josilene Borges on first day of school. — Jeanna Shepard

Meanwhile, despite so many constraints, unknowns and concerns, back to school still held excitement for teachers, students and administrators.

Students came to collect supplies at the high school and ninth graders came in for in-person orientation this week.

“It’s a little bit exciting,” assistant high school principal Jeremy Light said. “I felt like there was a buzz in the air today as we got to see kids we haven’t seen since March. They were excited as well as our teachers and definitely the administration — I just think the hard work is going to pay off.”

On Wednesday, Tisbury School principal John Custer echoed the comments. “I feel excited,” he said. “And part of that excitement is nervousness, but that’s not really different than a typical year where I have butterflies.” He continued:

“It’s strange. The first day of school is usually this grand reopening and all the kids are back reconnecting and it’s a really celebratory wonderful day. Tomorrow it won’t have quite that full effect, but for the students who are coming into the building, we’re really, really excited to see them.”

He concluded:

“It’s hard sometimes to accept things, and we all want to work with kids in person. As some of my staff members have had to remind me . . . [we are happy about] the fact that we are able to reopen schools.”

More pictures.