Silence replaced chaos on the Payson Elementary School playground on Monday morning.

Last year, 550 students converged on the playground to greet friends they hadn’t seen all summer before lining up in designated areas for their teachers to lead them into the classroom.

But the first day of in-person learning on Monday was different.

For one thing, it came in October instead of August.

And nobody played on the playground.

Some teachers greeted children departing buses, but most were on the other side of the building helping kids figure out where to go as they got out of the many cars lined up in rows in the parent drop-off/pickup lanes.

They wore facemasks and used the hand sanitizer placed throughout the building.

“I have my own,” said one girl, retrieving a container of Purell from her backpack as she entered the hallway, squirting some in her palm and rubbing her hands together.

It’s something she and her classmates and teachers will do often throughout this strange school year.

COVID-19 has changed so much of our world over the past eight months. Efforts to minimize the spread of the pandemic led to schools switching to remote learning back in March and through the end of the 2019-20 school year.

Payson Unified School District students began the 2020-21 year on their home computers. But they returned to class this week.

Although it wasn’t technically the first day of school, second-year PES Principal Michelle May said staff was overjoyed to see the children back in school.

“I think this first day coming back is more exciting than it was last year as we are really excited to have the kids back,” May said. “We’re anxious to get them back in our classrooms.”

Stacia Foster walked her stepson, Dexter Kincannon-Doss, to PES to avoid waiting in the long line of cars.

“It’s a lot busier,” Foster said of the traffic. “We live right down the road. He wanted to be dropped off but I’m like, ‘We’re just gonna walk today.’ It gives him some exercise since they’ve been cooped up for so long. He’s very excited. He was ready to get back to school and make friends and kind of get back to normal life as much as he can. His brother, Quinn, is a fourth grader at Julia Randall (Elementary), so his dad just dropped him off.”

First-year Rim Country Middle School Principal Jennifer Murphy held facemasks with one hand as she greeted students as they came onto campus.

“This is the strangest start in the 21 years I’ve been in education,” she said. “It’s not ideal, but the kids are back and I’m so excited.”

It’s her first year in the district.

“I remember my very first year of teaching and the anticipation of finally meeting your own students,” Murphy said. “It’s like that. It’s been fun so far. I just hope that everything is as normal as possible for the students.”

It’s been anything but normal since PUSD switched to remote learning in March, then started this school year the same way.

“K-12 education has been in the classroom, in-person direct instruction for what seems like thousands of years,” she said. “And we went to virtual in a matter of days. I think the teachers have done a great job managing that. The staff is very strong and dedicated to the students.

“But students seem very excited to be here today and it sounds like they’re just ready to be back with their friends, back in school. It’s not easy to learn virtually, especially at this age. We’re just excited.”

Gila County Probation Officer Garth Linkey joined RCMS staff in greeting students on Monday morning.

“I hate these masks,” Linkey said as one student after another came through the entry gate wearing masks. “I have a hard time remembering names; I have to see faces and this makes it a little difficult.”

He was a police officer and the school’s resource officer and said he hopes to “still be spending time in a positive role with the kids.”

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