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After not seeing her students for nearly six months, Corynn Arehart said it was difficult to recognize some of them.

“The kids are so tall,” said Arehart, the principal at McKinley Elementary in Tremonton on Monday, Aug. 31, the first day of the 2020-21 school year. “Normally they come back after three months and it’s like ‘Oh, you got so big,’ but now some of them are a head taller.”

Thousands of students returned to the classroom in schools across the Box Elder School District for the first time since in-person instruction was suspended in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes resumed Monday with a host of precautionary measures in place, the most visible being a mandate for everyone entering the schools to wear a facemask.

Per district policy, public schools in the county are starting out with half days for the first two weeks, a sort of trial run before full days are scheduled to resume.

Aside from the mask requirement inside schools and on buses, measures in place to minimize the spread of the new coronavirus include increased cleaning and sanitizing measures, limiting the sharing of school supplies between students, staggered lunch breaks and dining outside when the weather allows, among other new practices.

Schools have also implemented new methods to keep students organized and appropriately distanced when school gets out. When the school day ended at 12:25 p.m. Monday at McKinley and students began walking out the front doors, staff were in place to direct parents to one of several color-coded areas to match them with their children.

It’s just one of many changes that are necessary for the foreseeable future, and Arehart said things went smoothly on the first day, largely because of a massive planning effort over the summer.

“We’ve had tons and tons of meetings, trying to think through all the contingency plans, all the what-ifs, what can we plan ahead for, what can we try to mitigate as best as possible,” she said. “Some things you just can’t plan for until it happens, and then you stand together and refine.”

A line of cars stretched around the block as parents came to pick up their kids on Monday, but things had cleared out within 45 minutes after the final bell. Arehart stood curbside with a tablet in hand, helping direct parents to the proper pickup areas.

“Once we get the bugs out, it will be faster,” she said. “We really appreciate our parents’ patience.”

At McKinley, more than 90 percent of the school’s approximately 600 students are attending in person, with the remainder going for the online option.

Arehart said the kids on Monday seemed happy to be back among their peers, experiencing some semblance of normalcy at a time when such a feeling has been hard to come by.

“The kids were amazing today — not one single issue,” she said. “It was so fun to watch them smile with their eyes.”

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