School may have started officially one week ago, but yesterday felt like the ‘real’ first day of the school year for Wilton, as (some) students returned to in-person learning in actual classrooms. It’s the first time students and teachers will be face-to-face in person since the Wilton Public School District closed its schools six months ago at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Things definitely looked different. Everyone wore face masks, and buses often had fewer than 10 student riders–during the first round of bus drop-offs at Cider Mill School, there were some buses without a single student. At Miller-Driscoll School, rather than letting a kindergarten students sit close together on the grass as they waited for everyone in the class to arrive, teachers directed students to a spray-painted white dot to stand on and wait, six-feet of socially distanced space away from any of their classmates.

There were also far fewer students arriving than is typical, with the student body split alphabetically into two cohorts for the hybrid model of the ‘new normal’ in a COVID world. While Cohort A learned in person Tuesday, the other half of the students in Cohort B worked remotely at home yesterday, with most of them set to return for their first in-person day this Thursday.

But then again, some things looked exactly the same. The masks that teachers and administrators wore couldn’t hide smiling eyes and enthusiastic greetings for students. Especially at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill Schools, there were waves as buses and cars pulled up, excited hellos, and lots of warm welcomes.

Dr. Kevin Smith, Wilton’s superintendent of schools, did what he does every year on the first day of school:  he was outside the schools to personally greet arriving students and support his staff. And while he couldn’t give students his usual high-fives and fist bumps (or sit on the grass in his suit and tie, criss cross apple sauce with kindergarteners), he was still there, making sure he was on-site to add his welcome and even escort some younger students to their classes’ meeting spots.

Things seemed buttoned-up at each of the schools. Even though the vast majority of students arrived by car rather than by bus, the traffic jams were manageable. It helped that Wilton Police cruisers and school resource officers were on hand to help keep things moving as best as possible. That stands to get better as time progresses and as the ‘newness’ wears off–students will get more accustomed to the process and fewer parents will linger.

Spearheaded by his administrators at each building, the arrivals process was, according to Smith, organized, efficient and “very smooth.”

“I’m not surprised at all about that, we have an amazing staff. They’ve been planning for months. It looked like traffic was a little dicey, so we have to follow up on that piece. But in terms of kids getting out of cars, getting off the buses, getting into schools it was very, very well organized,” he said.

Two years ago Smith told GMW how excited he gets each year for the first day. This year, he admitted to having more “mixed emotions.”

“I’m absolutely thrilled to have students back in our school buildings. That’s really about as heartwarming for me is it can be. On the other side of things, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and so the structure of school is not what any of us would want it to be. That’s a challenge now, but we’re doing it. And it’s our job to just be optimistic and get through it. And we’ll try to get all of our kids back as soon as we possibly can,” he said.

As someone who got to see so many of the students across the district as they walked into school Tuesday, Smith enjoyed being a witness to them taking one step toward something more normal.

“They look like they’re ready for school. Our kids are really resilient and that’s what I saw today–they’re just happy to be back.”

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Dr. Bob O’Donnell shared photos from inside Wilton High School on Tuesday, the first day of in-person learning for the Wilton School District.

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