At 7 a.m., the yellow lights on the school zone speed limit sign blinked back to life on Herff Ranch Boulevard outside of Cibolo Creek Elementary. Crossing guards Gina Kearley and Jim Parido stood at the ready.

The pair welcomed students back to campus for the first time since March, when school districts across Texas sent students home to learn in an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus.

“We’re excited, grateful, and happy to be back,” Kearley said between trips across the median.

“It’s a back-to-normal kind of feel,” Parido added.

On Wednesday, thousands of students returned to Boerne Independent School District campuses. Less than 25 percent of BISD’s 9,000 students decided to continue learning from home, according to a district spokesman.

Boerne ISD, headquartered in Kendall County with two schools in Bexar County, is the first locally to reopen campuses. South San Antonio ISD also started class on Wednesday but will keep students at home through October.

Kendall County has recorded 3.57 coronavirus cases per 1,000 people, according to Aug. 12 data from the Department of State Health Services. By comparison, Bexar County has recorded 16.93 cases per 1,000 people.

In mid-July, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District issued an order barring any Bexar County campuses from opening before Sept. 8. But after state officials essentially overrode that order, Metro Health replaced its mandate with guidance that introduced public health metrics that districts could follow to guide reopening decisions.

Other area districts will keep campuses closed until at least after Labor Day.

Seventy-seven percent of BISD families chose to send their students back to campus, but parent Nadine Roberts, whose four kids returned to classrooms Wednesday, said the decision was not an easy one.

On Wednesday morning, Roberts walked with her third and fifth graders back to Cibolo Creek Elementary. Her kids were excited, but also nervous.

“It’s the questions about, ‘Do I need to wipe my desk down? How often to wear my mask?” Roberts said, describing her kids’ uncertainties. “It was a rough decision with a lot of back and forth.”

Families and students arrive at Cibolo Creek Elementary School as crossing guard Gina Kearley stops traffic. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A few miles north of Cibolo Creek Elementary, students began to cluster around the entrance of Boerne Middle School North before the doors officially opened at 8 a.m. They sat on the benches out front, greeting friends excitedly after so many months away from campus.

Students arrived wearing masks but sat close to one another, snapping selfies featuring their new back-to-school accessory. When the doors opened, students streamed through the doors.

At Boerne Champion High School, students experienced a return to class that was far from a normal first day of school, senior Alexa Frei said.

Everyone wore masks, which sometimes made it hard for teachers to identify students they were less familiar with, Frei said.

“It was kind of difficult because it gets really hot in the mask but people are figuring out different types of masks to breathe in,” she said. “The disposable ones they have at H-E-B are helpful to wear in the school because they are more breathable but still provide protection.”

Only two people were allowed in a bathroom at one time, and students carried water bottles with them because the water fountains were shut down. In some of Frei’s classes, distance learners logged on from home to watch teachers in the classroom.

Fellow senior Emma Tao said returning to campus both felt familiar and slightly strange. While in typical years each teacher arranged their classroom according to their personal preferences, all desks were arranged in rows Wednesday and students sat in assigned seats.

Hallways remained busy during passing periods, she said, but everyone kept their masks on and tried to give others space.

“It’s a different environment, but it’s familiar because these hallways are the same ones we’ve seen for the past three, four years,” Tao said. “It was great to be back.”

Fair Oaks Elementary parent Angela Walch was one of the few Boerne parents who chose to keep her students at home for the start of the school year, until she feels the level of community spread has decreased.

In the morning, her three kids spread out with their devices into three rooms – two in their bedrooms and one at the kitchen table joining online-only classes. Looking upon their new remote classmates, Walch’s kindergartener didn’t know many faces, her third grader knew one or two, and her fifth grader recognized several friends.

Walch’s kids immediately noticed a difference from their springtime distance learning. At the end of the last school year, there were far more activities the students did on their own. This time around, Boerne ISD will rely on more activities done as a class over live video.

But there were still some elements familiar to a regular first day of school. Teachers read their classes books about first-day jitters and classes engaged in icebreakers to learn everybody’s names.

“Right now they are just learning the resources – where your links are, where your passwords are, how to mute and unmute your mic,” Walch said. “Hopefully once those kinks get worked out, then it will get more substantive.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.