Aug. 31—As James Kerber walked hand in hand with his younger brother, John, up to the front of Wheelock Elementary School on Wednesday morning, the 5th grader was excited, if a bit uncertain about the new academic year.
"I'm kind of excited," said James, who along with his brother, a 4th grader, lives in Keene and Nelson. "I don't know how some stuff, like gym class, are gonna look like. It's different this year, but in a good way."
Wednesday marked the first day of school for N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland. Students in the ConVal and Jaffrey-Rindge districts also returned to the classroom on Wednesday, while several other local districts — including Monadnock, Fall Mountain, Hinsdale and Winchester — came back in the past few days.
And at the beginning of the new term, families and staff alike said fostering a sense of community is important as students return to the classroom for a relatively normal back-to-school season. No area districts currently require any specific masking policies or COVID-19 restrictions.
And after the last two years, when teachers had to create learning environments across remote and hybrid platforms, changing how students socialized with one another, many families dropping off students at Keene schools Wednesday said they were happy to see the school year shaping up to be similar to pre-pandemic years.
"I'm just so glad that this year is going to look more normal," Heather Paige, parent of 4th grader Lawson Wheeler, said as she waved goodbye to her son. "I'm glad there won't be masks, and just getting to see their smiles again."
Mattie Whitehead of Keene is a 2nd grader at Wheelock, and on a similar note, was mainly looking forward to one specific event this school year: picture day.
"I'm really excited for it. I like to smile," she said with an ear-to-ear grin featuring a sheen of sparkly lip gloss, which matched her pink and white polka-dot patterned dress.
The summer months saw the continuation of a multi-year renovation project at Wheelock, which enrolls students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Those renovations, which SAU 29 Superintendent Robert Malay called "modernizations" to the school, included new cabinetry in classrooms, additions to the playground and upgrades to the schools HVAC system for air ventilation. Last year, the school redid its gymnasium with new flooring and lighting systems.
"We actually were cutting it pretty close this year," Malay said Wednesday. "We had a walkthrough with the fire chief yesterday, making sure we would be able to open and that everything was up to code."
The finishing touches for this year at Wheelock, including reopening the school's library, which was closed for student access on the first day due to ongoing upgrades, will wrap up in the coming weeks, Malay said.
Kevin Sullivan of Keene, a 2nd grade teacher at Wheelock, is in his 20th year with the district. He said the new cabinets in his room made the space feel new.
"I was in here for a few days just setting everything up, and it was great to see how much it's changed the room," Sullivan said. "It's going to be great for the kids."
Elsewhere at Wheelock, excitement abounded for many of the students, as they were greeted by staff members at the front doors with high fives, fist bumps and even a few hugs.
"This year is gonna be amazing," said Principal Patty Yoerger. "Last year, we saw COVID be the driving force for a lot of these students in their lives, and now we want learning to be the driving force."
Yoerger, who is in her seventh year at Wheelock, welcomed each student by name Wednesday morning, and asked if they knew which classroom they were heading to.
"We've got about 200 students," said Yoerger. "So it's helpful to have those personal connections — to be able to greet them each day and know their names, know who their teachers are."
Over on Maple Avenue, students at Keene Middle School were eagerly chatting in the hallways amid a chorus of walkie-talkie feedback from staff welcoming students at the front doors.
"Our focus this year is to really meet these students where they're at," said Principal Deanna Zilske, who will be entering her sixth year leading the school. "We've always been centered around building community, but this year is particularly important — connecting not just the students with each other, but with their families and the staff."
Keene Middle School is structured around grade-based clusters identified by a letter, each of which has its own wing in the school. Students attend their core classes in these cluster areas, and then visit other parts of the school for their allied art, physical education and music courses.
KMS also has school-wide themes each year to help foster connections among students and staff. This year, the theme is "We Are."
"We are a community," Zilske said in her morning video message to students. "Ask yourself, who are you today, and who do you want to be tomorrow? What do you want to accomplish?"
Family and Consumer Science educator Tracey Jillson, who will be co-teaching in Cluster F reading teacher Sara Petersen's advisory this year, passed out markers to students, so they could write their names on the nametag stickers at their desks. For the first few weeks of the year, the school will have an extended advisory period, a time set aside for students to meet in small groups to receive academic and social support, at the start of each day to help students acclimate to the new year.
And in line with this year's school theme, Petersen invited her students to stand in a circle and asked two crucial questions to help build community within her advisory: What is your name, and what is your favorite dessert or sweet treat?
And while many students were just entering these buildings for the first time this year, at Keene High School on Arch Street some were already in the building prior to the first day of classes
"We had freshmen orientation yesterday, and athletes have been in the school for about a week now," Principal Cindy Gallagher said as she greeted students and families behind the school Wednesday morning.
This year's freshmen orientation program was similar to pre-COVID years, when incoming freshmen would get to meet their teachers, eat lunch in the cafeteria and visit a student club fair to learn more about the extracurricular offerings at the school.
"It's great to be back," Gallagher said. "We've got a good year ahead of us."