The school year opened Tuesday across South Carolina with a mix of excitement, confusion and emptier classrooms, many with no students at all, as their teachers gave instructions through a computer screen.
While some chaos can be expected for any first day back, districts' evolving plans for reopening in the pandemic heightened parents' frustrations over scheduling and how to use school-provided computers. Some didn't even realize their children couldn't return, six months after classrooms were forced to shutter.
The state education agency's mask mandate for inside buses and schools seemed to be largely followed. And reminders for students to use their "Superman arms" — as overheard at a school in West Columbia — made it easier for children to stay apart as they walked the hallways.
In all, 32 districts started the school year the day after Labor Day, something unseen in South Carolina in 28 years but encouraged by state officials as a way to better prepare for the unprecedented changes in what learning looks like amid COVID-19.
In the Charleston region, only Berkeley County schools opened by offering all students the option of a full week of in-person learning.
Nearly half of the district's 31,800 students did so. An almost equal number tuned in virtually but received livestreamed instruction from their teachers to learn along with their classmates. Less than 3 percent chose the district's other virtual learning option, where students largely complete work at their own pace.
"I think we’re going to have more and more kids come back," Superintendent Eddie Ingram told board members Tuesday night.
At Howe Hall AIMS (Arts Infused Magnet School) in Goose Creek, Principal Christopher Swetckie looked on with pride as 280 students returned — two-thirds of normal enrollment. In classes where it wasn't possible to keep students 6 feet apart, three-sided clear plastic separated them.
"Besides the obvious stuff, it's been a great day," Swetckie said. "Learning is happening and that's a great thing to be able to say these days as a principal."
In Charleston County, an estimated 13,000 students, or around 25 percent, could take classes in person. Others were learning online either in the "temporary remote" model, waiting for their ability to return, or their parents selected the district's all-virtual option.
Some showed up not knowing which model they had been assigned.
At Simmons-Pinckney Middle School downtown, Sherrel Brightman and her sixth grade granddaughter were turned away at the door.
Brightman thought she had successfully registered her granddaughter for in-person class only to learn Tuesday morning that wasn't the case. She was told her granddaughter needed to go home and sign onto her computer for online classes by 8:30 a.m.
"She's disappointed in some sense because she was waiting for this for a long time," Brightman said.
She plans to talk with administrators later this week to find out if it's possible for her granddaughter to transfer to in-person school.
Another parent, Yulonda Clayton, was also frustrated to learn that her son, an eighth grader at Simmons-Pinckney Middle, was enrolled in the district's online school.
Her son, Jacques, showed up outside the building Tuesday morning after he had trouble logging onto his school-issued Chromebook.
"I don’t want my son to be taught online," Clayton said. "I want him to be in school. I didn't know there was a choice."
At West Ashley High School, around 560 students returned to the classroom.
Another 75 or so students on the in-person waitlist will likely be able to join by the end of this month, said Principal Ryan Cumback. Normally, the school's enrollment sits at nearly 1,800 students.
During class changes, dozens of students flooded the halls. Hallway entrances were marked with small signs and floor arrows that directed the flow of traffic. Almost all students wore their masks properly, although a handful let their face coverings slip below their noses.
The lunchroom, which normally holds up to 550 students, now only hosts 160 students at a time, Cumback said. In order to accommodate everyone, the school alternated its daily schedule and has three separate lunch periods.
Certain seats at the lunch tables were marked off with blue tape to designate where students could sit. Unmarked seats were spaced out so they were at least 6 feet apart.
While most students adhered to the new seating protocol, others ignored it. Teachers and lunch monitors occasionally stepped in to intervene by asking students to move to a different seat not marked off with tape.
"Our staff is doing the best they can," Cumback said.
A few students exchanged quick hugs and complimented each other on their colorful face masks before joining the winding line of students waiting to get their food.
At home, some Charleston families had trouble accessing their online curriculum.
Dottie Brown, the principal at Memminger Elementary, said there were some challenges with technology, but that's to be expected.
Some parents called the school to say they didn't know how to sign their child on for online learning. Others forgot their child's login information or couldn't access the internet at all.
"It was multiple problems that we worked through, but overall I think it was pretty strong. And we'll just continue throughout the week to problem solve and make it as smooth as we can make it," she said. "We'll just continue to get better at it until all of our kids can come back."
Despite some of the technology hiccups, the school is in a much better place now with virtual learning than it was this spring, she said.
State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman has pledged to legislators that's the case statewide.
Dorchester 2 is among districts beginning online only.
Not seeing the children in person for the first day of school has been difficult, said Allyson Kahler, a kindergarten teacher at Joseph R. Pye Elementary, which normally holds more than 700 students.
On Tuesday, its halls were eerily silent.
"I get 20,000 hugs a day," Kahler said. "It’s really hard on teachers."
By the first day, just six students hadn’t picked up their virtual learning equipment. School leaders said that’s a good sign.
The district is expected to decide Wednesday whether students will be able to return in person by Sept. 21.
In the meantime, spaces like the Summerville YMCA opened its doors on Tuesday for the first day of its child care program for members who couldn’t remain home with their kids.
"This is really allowing people to keep their job," said Jana Chanthabane, director of Summerville YMCA at The Ponds.
Around 80 students from kindergarten to seventh grade are signed up to spend their virtual school days at the YMCA facility. Most are Dorchester 2 students. A handful go to a school in Berkeley County.
Geny Moringlane, a child development coordinator with the Summerville YMCA, said one of the challenges is getting accustomed to the schedules, since each school is different.
"It’s a learning process,” she said. "We’re learning as they learn."
Georgetown County also started Tuesday completely virtual. But, as in other all-online districts, teachers still worked from their classroom.
While many teachers could welcome students back inside in the coming weeks, depending on the virus and district officials' decisions, Georgetown High School English teacher Jamie Langston is among those who will continue teaching online to students staying in the all-virtual option.
"Honestly, I know my way around technology in the classroom, but I’m still a little nervous,” Langston said. “I feel like a first-year teacher. But I’m going to do my best today and I think that I’ve over-planned."
Pleasant Hill Elementary School Principal Teddy Graham readily admitted it's been tough getting ready for such an unprecedented school year.
"It’s definitely the most difficult thing that I’ve encountered in my career, just getting ready for such a vast array of services that we’re having to provide,” he said.
In Horry County, students eagerly greeted friends with elbow bumps.
But for 13,377 students in the district's virtual program, Tuesday brought more questions and unsatisfactory answers.
Many remained without access to their schedules and lacked login information to access the virtual classrooms. The district hopes the all-virtual option will be up and running by Monday. This week, teachers will contact students and parents via email, live meetings and phone, in an effort to meet that goal.
Some parents ran thin on patience, complaining their children were mistakenly put in the wrong model.
Tia Marie Mahaffey said she met the district's deadline for signing up her son for the all-virtual option, and has proof. But he was placed in a hybrid group that was supposed to report to school Tuesday.
"It wasn’t my mistake,” Mahaffey said.
Another Horry County parent, Stephanie Maribel Cruz, said her son landed in the virtual program even though she says she didn’t request it. Making things harder, Cruz said, is that her home lacks internet access.
Students can get mobile hot spots paid for by the state. They can also come to any school building to access the internet from the parking lots.
Across the state, policies prevented parents from accompanying children to their classroom.
"I understand it is what it is, it’s just hard that this is the way it is,” said Horry County parent Becky Ballard.
Her two children both attend Socastee Elementary. She was especially nervous for her son, Eric Jr., who just started kindergarten. She admitted she's probably more nervous than him about walking in without her. And she took comfort that Eric's protective older sister could look out for him on his first day.
Melissa Rutenberg, starting her third year as principal of Forestbrook Middle School, couldn’t sleep Monday night out of anticipation of leading a team of teachers and staff through a historic first day of school for Horry County.
Asked if she was worried, she responded, "That ‘w’ word is not in my vocabulary. We are concerned for their safety and that everything goes smoothly. We have done a ton of communication on the front end of students attending our school.”
Like teachers across the state, Hannah Sweat, a math teacher at Forestbrook Middle, had been preparing throughout the summer to welcome students back into the classroom.
"I wanted to make sure I was prepared for basically every outcome and I think that is the same for every teacher in the building,” she said.
At Northside Middle School in Lexington School District 2, which is just west of Columbia, Principal Matt Schilit noted the strange nature of the first day of the academic year. In his roughly 20 years as an educator, he never envisioned starting school during a pandemic.
Masks, social distancing and hybrid schedules are "things, truly speaking, that I never saw coming. But, it's here. And honestly, the kids were just excited (Tuesday) morning to be back in school."
The split scheduling and masks make it more difficult for students to get to know their teachers, and each other. But the familiarity will eventually come, said Kathy Jackson, a fifth-grade teacher at Riverbank Elementary School in West Columbia, who's been teaching for a quarter century.
"The challenges are trying to get to know the students without really having a lot of face-to-face time," Jackson said. "It's taking some time to get them engaged, but we're getting there."
Nick Masuda, Jerrel Floyd, Andrew Miller, Danny Kelly, Jay Rodriguez, Tyler Fleming and Chris Trainor contributed to this report.