KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knox County students headed back to class Monday morning for the first time since March with new safety guidelines in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; while others enrolled in the school district’s virtual option logged into classes from home.

Physical attendance

At Ritta Elementary, students were greeted by Principal Shawnda Ernst, Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and more.

“We’ve never started school like this before. So we’re all a little anxious but we’re just so excited to have kids back in the classrooms for the first time since March 12th,” Ernst said.

Ernst got a little emotional when she talked about the fact that this was the first year that parents weren’t able to walk their children inside the school on their first day.

She and other teachers wore masks with smiley faces to show how they were feeling when their real smile was covered up.

In order to be ready for the first day, many changes had to take place, and some students were nervous about what to expect.

“Kind of nervous about going in school…Like not nervous as in scared. Nervous as never been here in a long time,” one third grader said.

Many changes were noticeable as soon as students stepped foot on school property, such as masks.

“I know it’s an unusual start. People wearing masks and so forth and temperature checks, but we’ve tried to take all the safety precautions that we know to take to make sure that our students and our staff are safe,” Thomas said.

Knox County Schools just installed a temperature scanner that looked similar to a metal detector.

Every person entering the school was required to place their wrist in front of the scanner for the temperature check.

Signs were posted all around Ritta Elementary reminding students about the safety guidelines.

Classrooms were a little more spread out, but the desks weren’t necessarily placed six feet apart because there wasn’t enough space to do so.

Lunchtime will also be different: Instead of eating in the cafeteria, students will eat in their classrooms or outside.

Virtual attendance

About 150 students at Ritta chose the virtual class option. By doing so, class sizes were slightly smaller.

Cameron Malone, the first grade virtual teacher for all Ritta first graders, said he only had about 22 students in his online class.

He said teaching younger students how to learn virtually will be a little more difficult. He not only has to teach students how to use the online programs and Chromebooks, but he also has to figure out how to make the virtual class as normal as possible.

Malone said his students won’t be online the entire class period. He is thinking of ways to get them moving around the house safely.

“I’m just going to incorporate brain breaks into it. You know, once I see, you can kind of see, even if you do it in a classroom, the kids are getting fidgety. You just a have a little break. Get up, you know, move around, you know, maybe have a scavenger hunt. Go find me three things that are green in your house and bring them back to me and talk about them,” Malone said.

He said interacting with students will be different. With virtual, he can’t simply look over someone’s shoulder to check their work, but he can look for a raised hand.

“I can always call on a student. There’s a button on (Microsoft) Teams where you can raise your hand and I can see a virtual kid’s hands raised with his name beside it so I can call on that student. So it’s going to be kind of the same. It’s going to be a little slower at first once we get used to it, but I think eventually it will work out pretty well,” Malone said.

Malone said he was worried about how well the internet connection will be during the semester, especially when storms blow through.

KCS staff said they will have an IT team member at every school, plus about 29 other IT members, to share around the district.

Mayor Jacobs weighs in

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said he was excited to see the schools reopening, especially for in-person classes.

He said students going back into the classroom was not only an important step of getting back into a routine, but it’s also important for students to be able to make a connection with their teachers, whom he said often end up being a student’s role model.

“While you can have curricula and academics and all those things available online, you can never replace the human interaction. And that’s important for, it’s just important especially for your younger kids, and also when we look at our at risk students it’s vitally important,” Jacobs said.

KCS: Reopening is ‘off to a great start’

Several KCS staff said the first couple of days will have some hiccups, especially virtually, but everything will smooth out once the basics are down.

Knox County Schools saying via Twitter late Monday that its reopening was “off to a great start!”

The school district also thanked its teachers and staff for their work and also thanked students and families for supporting the new rules and procedures of wearing masks, temperature checks and physical distancing.