GREENSBORO — For almost six months now, Guilford County Schools ninth graders have been taking remote high school classes, and sixth graders have been taking remote middle school classes.
On Monday morning, many of these new kids on campus walked into mostly unfamiliar buildings.
"I'm nervous, obviously, because it's my first day of high school, but I'm excited," said Grimsley High School student Elliott Boyland.
Some of the district's middle and high school students with special needs have been learning in person since November, but otherwise these sixth and ninth graders are the first to return to the Guilford County Schools' secondary schools.
About half of the students in these grades that opted to return to in-person learning went back on Monday, while the other half will return Thursday.
The plan is for each group to be on campus two days a week and learn the other three days remotely. However, ninth graders in the first group will not come back to their schools in-person again until next Monday, because of ACT testing for juniors going on at the schools Tuesday.
The second group also will get only one day of in-person instruction this week because the district plans a remote learning day for Friday. On Friday, many school staff members will be stepping out to get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
At Grimsley on Monday, many ninth graders hopped out of family cars and stood in a line in the drizzling rain to get their temperatures taken and show staff "green" all clear codes on their cellphones.
The district just started using "CrisisGo," an app that allows parents certify ahead of time each morning that their child does not have COVID-19 symptoms.
Once they made it through the checkpoint, students faced the classic challenge of trying to figure out where among Grimsley high school's 13 buildings their first period classes were located.
Staff standing outside offered directions and reassured them there would be more staff inside to help direct them.
School nutrition workers wheeled a cart of breakfasts into the courtyard for students to grab on their way to class, but by the time they did, most students were already inside, having shown up a bit early for their first day.
Pedro Alcantara, a Grimsley ninth grader who walked onto campus Monday morning with friends, did not share Boyland's enthusiasm for returning to in-person school.
"It feels weird," he said. "It's been like a year."
Alcantara sees remote learning as more convenient, but came for in-person part time because it is what his parents wanted and because he plays school sports.
He predicted that, despite health precautions, people would wind up catching COVID-19 at Grimsley and the school would go back to remote learning full time again.
Several Grimsley students reported being nervous about COVID transmission, but some said they'd seen things on Monday that made them feel a little less nervous by the end of the day.
For one thing, some students were surprised to see fewer students in their classes than they'd expected. Grimsley students who spoke for this story mentioned in-person class sizes ranging from two to 11 people.
Ged O'Donnell, the school's principal, said there's a couple of reasons for the small numbers.
First, many classes include multiple grade levels, so there will be more students in them when the 10th and 12th graders start to come back next Monday, and the 11th graders the week after that. Also, he said, Grimsley's old buildings have many small classrooms that can't fit more than nine students spaced for social distancing.
Grimsley ninth grader Lizzie Geier said one of her classes on Monday relocated to a section of the school auditorium after there were more students present than allowed in the classroom space.
O'Donnell said that's a contingency plan the school had in place for cases when more students showed up than they'd expected.
For Geier, seeing the class get moved helped her feel safer. Also, she said, she was pleased to see students being required to wipe their spaces at the end of class periods.
Grimsley ninth grader Omari Barnes said having few students in his classes was a pro for COVID-19 safety, but a con as far as the sort of social opportunity he'd like to have with returning to school.
O'Donnell said that teachers across the school have been issued Swivl robots. Teachers wear a Global Positioning System device that communicates with the Swivl, which then points an iPad to capture video of them as they move and teach in their classroom. The iPad then streams to students at home.
This, O'Donnell said, is how students at home will learn online while their teachers are simultaneously teaching in the classroom.
Barnes said a couple of his teachers tried out their Swivls with their classes on Monday. He said they did have some technical problems, like issues with the students at home hearing them properly, but he said it seemed like they were able to get the issues sorted out.
Barnes expects he will better handle the days of remote learning with in-person instruction to complement it. He learns better in person and has fewer distractions than at home, he said. He believes that if he's caught on to something during his days at school, it'll be easier to continue with the topic on his remote days.
Barnes said high school is a "big upgrade" from middle school, with a bigger challenge of learning how to get around the campus. But one thing that's nice, he said, is already knowing O'Donnell from when he was principal at Kiser Middle School.
"He has really high expectations," Barnes said.
Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.