Things have changed a bit, but for K-2 students and staff in the Stoughton Area School District, the return to school has been like a return to the good ol’ days – with plenty of excitement for both.

Hundreds of the district’s youngest learners came back to classes Monday, Nov. 16 – for most of them, it was the first time they’d been at school since mid-March, and for others, a delayed first day of in-person school. The school board initially held off for several weeks due to COVID-19 concerns, but it voted Oct. 26 to allow in-person learning for those grades based on Public Health Madison and Dane County recommendations.

There have been some adjustments to the new protocols in place, but largely, students and educators are enjoying being together after so long apart.

At Kegonsa Elementary School, where second-graders are learning about what life was like for early Americans in the West, the lunchroom was buzzing with stories about buffalo, principal Erin Conrad said. She said she was impressed how smoothly students have gotten back into the flow of school.

“There is a joyful hum from students and teachers as we have dived into learning,” she wrote in an email to the Hub. “It has just been a reminder that even in these uncertain times, kids are just as curious and eager to learn as ever.”

Kegonsa educational assistant Angie Kettner, who’s also a parent of one of those second-graders, said while she was nervous about him not wanting to keep a mask on or having “forgotten how to do school,” everything went off without a hitch.

“It was as if he hadn’t missed a beat,” she wrote the Hub in an email. ““No matter what rules or guidelines you put in place for kids, they will still find a way to find delight when they are together,” she said. “It reminded us how resilient kids really are.”

Kettner admitted she didn’t sleep much the night before the first day back – a mixture of worry and excitement, and making sure she had all the new safety measures and protocols memorized. She said she was “delighted at the thought” of being back at school with the students after all these months – 242 days, to be exact.

“As soon as the first student pulled up in the drop off circle, my heart was racing with joy!” she wrote. “The kids were excited, but I think the adults in the building were more excited.”

The kids were excited at Sandhill Elementary School, too, particularly kindergartners experiencing their first day of elementary school Nov. 16.

“I had a kindergartener jump off the last step of the bus and scream, ‘I get to go to kindergarten today!” and then run right to the entry door he was supposed to be using,” Sandhill interim principal Bob Johnson wrote in an email to the Hub. “It was an invigorating and motivating way to start my week.”

The first few weeks of the in-person restart were “really successful,” despite students being gone for the past eight months, rather than the usual three-month summer break, Johnson said. He added that staff have concentrated more on teaching procedures and expectations because of that extended absence.

“After the first week, it was clear that students were happy but exhausted,” he said. “I had one parent report to me that their student was sad at the end of the week because they had to wait two more days until they could come back to school.”

Educating students isn’t the same as it was back in March, with some changes and challenges of returning to in-person learning.

Johnson said teachers were “tired but inspired,” noting they’re having to adjust to being back on their feet for most of the day during in-person learning; something less common during virtual instruction. He said they saw the “structure and social interaction that many of our students have been missing and this inspired them to work towards meeting the needs of these students.”

“This is something that happens each year, virtually and in person, but was exaggerated with an eight-month in-person break,” he said.

Kegonsa Elementary School counselor Jake Schultz said even though the circumstances aren’t ideal, he’s noticed a “deeper appreciation for school and the connection our students have for one another.” He said from a social-emotional learning standpoint, he believes students are “doing outstanding” both in-person and virtually in the past two weeks.

“Their learning, along with behaviors, are exceeding expectations and we could not be more proud,” he wrote the Hub in an email.

Schultz said everyone is looking forward to when the older students can return (grades 3-5 would likely be next, based on country guidance), with safety as the No. 1 priority.

“We can’t wait until (our) halls are fully packed once again and ring with the laughter of students,” he said. “Until then we will continue to teach, love and care for in-person and virtual students as best we can.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.delaruelle@wcinet.com.