Andrea and Doug Tomer walk their son, Landon, to his first day of kindergarten Monday morning at Walton School. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Six months after schools shut their doors in the face of a growing, deadly pandemic, children began Monday to return to classrooms in Lewiston and Auburn.

Youngsters approached Auburn’s Walton Elementary School with the normal mix of excitement and nervousness, the same as every year.

Yet there was no denying that this is not a normal year.

Students came wearing masks to ward off infection from COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans since March.

Lindsay Francis takes a photo of her niece, Kylee Sacco, Monday in front of Walton School in Auburn before her first day of school. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Lindsay Francis stood in front of the building with niece Kylee Sacco, a fourth-grader who loves math, and told her to pose beside a tree. She snapped some pictures and then told her to put on her mask for a few more.

“I don’t know if you’re smiling,” Francis said, “but I can see it in your eyes if you are.”

Crossing guard Gordon Grant, who’s been shepherding students across Mary Carroll Street for a decade, said he’s thrilled to be back on the job, though he’s been cleaning inside the building for a couple of weeks already.

The only downside to students’ return, he said as he pointed to his mask, is “wearing this thing. That’s my challenge.”

Grant said he’s got it easier than others.

Tara Burton and her daughter, Kendra Woodworth, cross the street Monday with the help of crossing guard Gordon Grant on their way to Walton School in Auburn for Kendra’s first day of first grade. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“The poor teachers,” he said. “I feel sorry for them. I couldn’t handle that job, at least this year.”

“Every year has its challenges, and this one it’s a pandemic,” said kindergarten teacher Jennifer Duley at Raymond A. Geiger Elementary School in Lewiston.

Danielle Duval, whose daughter Adreanah is at Geiger, said her fifth grader “really wanted to go back to school.” It’s what she’s used to, her mother said.

Kayla Newmeyer, who works with Walton School’s autism program, said before the day got underway that she “can’t wait” to see students again after a long break punctuated by a summer that didn’t have its customary demarcation with a final, often celebratory, day of class.

She said educators are ready for the challenge this fall.

The biggest issue, Newmeyer said, is likely to be “just trying to get kids to keep their masks on.”

Plus, she said, it’s bound to be “a little odd” telling students to maintain social distancing.

Duley said the first day went well at Geiger, where students did what they were supposed to do. At this point, she said, “it’s sad, but they’re used to it.”

Leanne Weston pushes her 9-week-old twins as she accompanies her son, Grafton, to his first day at Walton School in Auburn on Monday morning. Grandfather Scott Fish, right, was on hand to take photos. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

To help maintain required distancing, only half of Walton’s students, grouped in Cohort A, showed up Monday for the first of their two-day-a-week in-person instruction. Cohort B students have in-person classes on Thursdays and Fridays.

A similar arrangement is being used in Lewiston. Duley said it made the school seem emptier, but with half as many students, instruction went more quickly so teachers could cover more ground.

Walking into the building Monday with an orange backpack and a cup of coffee, Erin Breau, who teaches gifted and talented students, said the school will be following its traditional routines while adhering to new procedures aimed at keeping everyone safe.

The most important thing is to “welcome the kids with as much positivity as we possibly can,” Breau said.

Some of the students are hyped for just that.

Tara Burton said daughter Kendra Woodworth, who is starting first grade, “was up and dressed in 10 minutes” Monday morning, determined to arrive on time and ready.

Burton said it’s important after the months of semi-isolation for her daughter to be out with people again, to have the sort of social interaction that children need.

Caleb Sardella, a kindergartner, gamely stood for a few pictures when he arrived.

“We’re very excited and nervous,” said his mother, Lindsey Sardello.

Her son said he’s up for it.

“It’s a new school and I get to play in the playground,” Caleb said.

Adreanah Duval gets into the car Monday with her mother after her first day back at Raymond A. Geiger Elementary School in Lewiston. Teacher Jennifer Duley holds the car door for her. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Duval said it’s nice her daughter could go back to school, but she remains “kind of grateful” for the extra time she got with Adreanah at home this year.

“It’s actually been a blessing,” Duval said, a chance not just to eat dinner together as a family but to make it as well, to share time that would normally have been claimed by school and homework.

Leanne Weston, who was dropping off a first grader, said there is “so much unknown” this time around because of COVID-19.

“I’m really nervous,” she said, “but I’m trying to hide it.”

Doug and Andrea Tomer appeared more chill as they brought son Landon to his first kindergarten class at Walton Elementary School.

“We feel comfortable” about it, Doug Tomer said.

Andrea Tomer said Walton “has done a really good job” preparing for the year and making sure families know what’s up.

“We’re excited for him,” Doug Tomer said as he smiled at Landon.

Grant, the crossing guard, watched the children he guided across the street as they trudged toward the doors of the brick schoolhouse.

“I love the kids,” he said. “They’re so cute.”

Duley, who’s starting her 16th year teaching kindergarten in Lewiston, said it’s hard to keep her distance from them.

“I miss not being able to hug them,” Duley said. “I’m hugging them with my eyes.”


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