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Here's How The First Day Of School Looked (And Sounded) In Milton

Staff screens student at Milton Elementary for a fever
Abagael Giles
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VPR File
A student at Milton Elementary School gets their temperature checked by a staff member before entering the building on Tuesday for the first day of school.

Tuesday marked the first day of school for more than 73,000 kids in Vermont, who were sent home last March due to COVID-19. Along with the usual excitement, the day also marked a milestone in the state’s handling of the pandemic.

In Milton, the first-day-of-school energy was palpable outside of the town’s middle school. Students began arriving around 7 a.m.

Teachers and staff greeted kids with signs and warm-yet-socially-distant hellos as they walked up paths covered with colorful welcome messages written in chalk.

Welcome to Middle School in chalk on the sidewalk
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At Milton Middle School, students lined up, socially distanced, to be pre-screened for exposure to and symptoms of COVID-19 before entering the building for the first day of school.

Dorey Demers is the school nurse at Milton Middle School. She’s also the COVID-19 coordinator for the Milton school district. She said the district is screening students every day in hopes of keeping sick kids from entering the school.

More from Vermont Edition: Vermont Health Officials Discuss Back To School, Vaccinations

“Right now we have kids arriving to school by bus, or walking, or being dropped off,” Demers said. “And so we have two stations going on, where kids are getting checked in, and they do their temperature check and we check their symptoms as well.”

Dorey Demers, Milton Middle School nurse
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Normally, Dorey Demers is the school nurse at Milton Middle School. This year, she's also coordinating the school district's coronavirus mitigation efforts.

Waving to a few familiar students, she said the first day of school has been a long time in the making.

“This is a big day. We’ve been preparing for this basically since March, [planning for] how it’s going to look,” she said.

There are about 425 students at Milton Middle School, and more than 600 students each at the high school and elementary school. Half will be in school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays.

More from VPR: Vermont Prepares For Projected Increase In COVID-19 Cases As Public Schools, Colleges Reopen

Katie Parent teaches English to seventh and eighth graders, and she said things feel a little different this year.

“It’s been actually really difficult to figure out who every kid is, because they’ve changed a lot in five months, and their hair is different, and I’m only seeing their eyes, so that is definitely adding to the nerves of everything,” Parent said, waving to kids as she spoke. “Mostly I’m filled with excitement to actually talk to them and play games with them, and give them some space to process everything that’s been happening for the past five months.”

Teachers stand with signs welcoming students
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Milton Middle School teachers Lindsay Sugar, left, and Katie Parent, right, welcome students back to school on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

Bob Iannaco was one of the people screening students at the door on Tuesday. He’s a behavior specialist in the middle school. He wore a face shield over his mask, as well as gloves, and employed a purple and white no-contact thermometer to check kids’ temperatures.

“We are asking them these two questions: ‘Have you been in close contact with a person who has COVID?’ Hopefully they say no, and then: ‘Have you felt unwell with any symptoms consistent with COVID?’ And then we ask them the different symptoms,” Iannaco said. “And then when they say no, we take their temperature, and if it’s under 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, they’re good to go. If it’s 100.4 or up, we have to send them to Dorey, our school nurse.”

Staff screens student at Milton Midde School for a fever
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
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VPR File
Screeners ask middle schoolers about their exposure to COVID-19 and take their temperature before they can enter Milton Middle School. At left, Bob Iannoco is usually a behavioral specialist for the school.

An uncertain student stepped forward, and Iannoco waved him over to check his temperature, saying, “Come here buddy!” As they spoke, the masked middle schooler visibly relaxed, and took a pump of hand sanitizer before entering the building.    

More from VPR: Poll Finds Vermonters Split Over Reopening Public Schools This Fall

This year, every student received a symptom check card in the mail before the first day of school, asking those same screening questions. If they come to school with it already filled out, they can skip straight to the temperature check. Nurse and COVID coordinator Dorey Demers said this option will continue through the fall. 

Elementary school

Milton Elementary School sits adjacent to the middle school. At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, pre-K through fourth grade students started stepping off of buses and out of cars onto the sidewalk.

Demers bustled around, getting the check stations set up. 

Kevin Endres on his school bus
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Veteran bus driver Kevin Endres guided students and a few too-heavy or forgotten backpacks to Milton Elementary on Tuesday morning.

“What we’re doing is we’re spacing out social distancing for the lines, so kids aren’t clumped together,” she said. “We’re putting some dots on the sidewalk right now, so kids know where they can stand and as they move forward, they’ll go to a new dot.”

Kurt Vogelpohl, the elementary school principal, is energetic; it's his first day with students at Milton. He started his job in July.

“I’m super excited," he said. "Honestly, it’s one of those things where I’m just happy to have the kids back and for myself, happy to meet the kids – or most of them – for the first time."

Milton Elementary Principal Kurt Vogelpohl
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Kurt Vogelpohl is the principal at Milton Elementary School. He started his job in July.

Tuesday was also Rowan Patterson's first day at Milton Elementary. She’s 3. Her dress and backpack were both bright pink. Rowan was microphone-shy, but she nodded yes to some questions from her mom, Savannah Thurston.

“Are you excited for the first day?” Savannah asked. Rowan nodded. 

“Yeah,” Savannah translated.

“Are you going to wear your mask all day?”

“Yeah.”

Savannah was wearing scrubs when she dropped Rowan off — she’s a medical assistant at a pediatric office. It was her first school drop-off as a parent.    

Three-year-old wearing mask with her mom at Milton Elementary
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Rowan Thurstan, 3, with her mom Savannah at Milton Elementary School. Tuesday was her first day of preschool.

“It feels really weird to be sending her to school with all these precautions, but it reassures me that younger kids aren’t getting sick, so I feel pretty good about her going,” she said. “I would be worried if she was in high school.”

As buses pulled up to the curb, swinging their doors open, waves of elementary schoolers stepped out in their first-day outfits, with big backpacks and tiny masks. First stop: temperature checks.

For fifth grader Addison Godin, Tuesday was not her first day. She will be learning from home on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But she went along with her mom to drop off her younger sister. Addison said she’s excited about seeing her friends on Thursday, but she’s also nervous.

Fifth grader stands outside Milton Middle School
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Addison Godin is starting fifth grade this week, at Milton Middle School. She dropped her younger sister off on Tuesday for in-person learning. They're on opposite schedules, when it comes to which days they'll be learning at school and which days they are learning at home.

“It’s just, I haven't been to school in months, so it’s different,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot different and it’s going to look a lot different.”

Lisa Godin, Addison’s mom, has four kids in total: two in the high school, one in elementary school and Addison. They all have different schedules.

“I have two going Monday/Tuesday and two going Thursday/Friday,” Godin said.

Signs inside Milton Elementary
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This week, students returned to Milton Elementary after about six months away. The library welcomed them, but so did new signs warning not to enter the building with symptoms of COVID-19.

Godin is usually a programming specialist at Milton Middle School, but she’s taking the year off from work. She made the decision just a few weeks ago. She said with the different schedules her four kids have, she couldn’t make it all work. 

More from VPR: School Starts In Four Weeks. The State Is Scrambling To Set Up Broadband For Students

“I need to, like, write down a schedule and color-coordinate it. Like, I don't want to bring the wrong kid on the wrong day!” she said with a laugh. “Once we start going and get the routine down, it’ll be a little easier and not as chaotic.”

preschoolers and kindergarteners at Milton Elementary
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VPR
Screened preschoolers, kindergarteners, first graders and second graders say goodbye to their parents and greet friends on the first day of school at Milton Elementary.

And that’s the hope for everything having to do with school this year. The first-day arrivals at Milton went off without a hitch. After about 30 minutes, as buses pulled up and away and students moved through the symptom checker stations, COVID coordinator Dorey Demers said finally:

“I think we’re almost done. We’ve got a couple buses left but yes, we’re finishing up. It’s been a successful morning.”

The first, hopefully, of many.

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