Students work on a project in Michele Koehler’s anatomy/physiology class at Riverside-Brookfield High School, where the academic year began Aug. 16. All students are back in school full-time for the first time since March 2020. (Courtesy of RBHS)

While the first day of school always generates feelings ranging from excitement and expectation to nervousness and fear, Aug. 16 was different at Riverside-Brookfield High School. 

For many students arriving Monday, it was their first day in a classroom with their peers since March 2020 when schools shut down in-person learning at the start of the COVID pandemic. But things — well not everything, since everyone was wearing a face mask — were getting back to business as usual.

“It felt pretty back to normal,” said sophomore Luke Schmitz, who stopped to talk to Landmark while walking home from school.

Other students who spoke to the Landmark generally agreed, but they said that it took some time to get used to spending an entire day in the building after learning from home last year.

Masked students cross Golf Road and head toward the main entrance of Riverside-Brookfield High School as classes begin for the 2021-22 school year. (Courtesy of RBHS)

“It’s definitely invigorating but at the same time it’s tiring, because we’re not used to it,” said a junior who asked to be identified as Karl. He did remote learning all of last year, so Monday was his first time in a classroom in 17 months.

“It was pretty nice most of all, seeing more of my friends again, also just seeing the teachers, too,” Karl said. “Overall, it doesn’t feel new but at the same time it just does. I’m not used to it. It was scary at first, but overall it feels great to be back.”

Face masks were required to be worn by students and staff indoors, except while eating lunch. But in some classrooms the mask requirement was not strictly enforced.

“There are some teachers who are a bit more lenient on the mask thing, and there are some people who just don’t like the masking at all and just take them off and that’s a bit of a health concern for me,” Karl said.

A junior named Michael said classrooms and the school seemed a little more crowded than he remembered two years ago.

“For some reason it feels like there’s a lot more people than there was during freshman year,” Michael said.

Students said wearing a face mask was kind of annoying, but they got used to it.

“It was kind of tiring,” said sophomore Mia Mendoza. “It was a little hard to understand people sometimes.”

Michael said he had some problems, especially in a couple of classrooms that were hotter than others.

“It felt hard to breathe a little bit,” Michael said.

The main accommodation to the pandemic, other than the mask wearing, was that the school tweaked its schedule to add two additional lunch periods to make the cafeteria less crowded. 

This year RBHS has five lunch periods instead of the usual three. A canopy-style tent was also placed on the front lawn of the school to allow students to eat lunch outside if they wished.

“Lunch was pretty much normal; you could just sit with your friends and eat,” Schmitz said.

Class seats were assigned so contact tracing can be easily done, if necessary. Students who are in close proximity to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 will only have to quarantine this year if they have not been vaccinated.

At the Aug. 10 school board meeting, Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said that approximately 52 percent of students and 82 percent of staff have submitted proof of vaccination although those numbers have increased in recent days as more families submit proof of vaccination to the school.

Sophomores Jazmine Castro and Mia Mendoza both did remote learning all of last year, so Monday felt a little bit like their first day of high school. It was the first time spending a school day in the building. 

They had some concerns that freshmen typically have, like worrying about getting lost in the building and not being able to find their classrooms. But they managed to navigate the building without any major problems.

“I thought it would be harder,” Castro said. “I found all my classes easily and I didn’t get lost at all.”

They said that they are looking forward to the full high school experience after their remote freshman year.

“We didn’t really experience your freshman experience like everyone else does,” Castro said.

Teachers were excited to have their classrooms full of students and to be teaching to a full classroom instead of to a computer screen.

“People were really happy to see each other,” said RBHS social studies teacher John Beasley, who is beginning his 26th year at RBHS. “Even though you were looking over the masks you could still see that people were just really eager.” 

Beasley wore a navy blue pinstripe suit to school on Monday, continuing his tradition of wearing a suit on the first day of school.

“I always tell them I want them to know how important I think our time together is,” Beasley said.

Marty Sloan, who teaches math and economics and who is serving as president of the RBEA, the RBHS teachers union, said the day felt pretty typical to him.

“Other than kids wearing masks, everything seems sort of back to normal,” Sloan said in a text message.

The first day of school at Lyons Township High School, which serves the southern half of Brookfield, will be Aug. 19. Things will also be pretty much back to normal as well at LTHS, except that one section of the cafeteria will be set aside for students who want to remain socially distanced during lunch.

“We can’t have all students three feet apart for lunch,” said LTHS Superintendent Brian Waterman. “What we’re going to do instead is we’re going to have special seating areas for those who do want to remain socially distant. It won’t be available to everyone but if a student does want to be socially distant they can. 

“We’re also expanding our ability to have kids eat outside, at least while the weather cooperates. We’re still feeding 4,000 students; we’re just having a few more options for students.”

But other than that and the state requirement to wear masks, said Waterman, “It’s going to look just like 2019.”