For 14-year-old Colby Binder, the return to a classroom couldn't have come soon enough. This week, as Marin County re-opened three school districts to in-person learning, Binder walked into an actual campus at Hall Middle School in Larkspur -- and sat in an actual desk.
"It feels really good just to be able to see teachers and kids in person," Binder said on the second day of classes. "It's something I haven't had in six months."
But the return to campus looked a lot different for Binder than when he left in March as the pandemic shut down schools. He and his fellow students were greeted by arrows safely channeling them through the campus. Each student and teacher entering a classroom was required to scan a barcode to aid with contact tracing. There were daily health screenings and each student desk was partitioned in plexiglass.
"It's a little strange," Binder said. "I'm not used to having plexiglass all around, but you get used to it."
The changes greeting students returning to class this week in Marin were perhaps as significant as any students have ever encountered in a U.S. classroom. District leaders said it was important to take whatever precautions they could in order for students to be able to gather once again in-person.
"Yesterday it was testing out all of our systems with hundreds of kids coming on to our campuses," said Brett Geithman, superintendent of the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District. "It was amazing to see how they've adapted to the new classroom environment."
Hall Middle School principal Toni Brown said students seemed ecstatic to get together at school following months of virtual learning. To her, it drove home the importance of social interaction in the lives of young people.
"As I watched students exit campus yesterday, day one, I saw eyes light up," Brown said before gesturing to her mask. "Maybe not smiles."
The district is using a cohort format for students -- placing them into fixed groups and rotating teachers. Brown said students used to flood the halls during classroom breaks, now it's teachers scurrying to the next classroom.
The district went as far as querying parents about their children's school friends, so the district could aim to place at least one of each student's friend in every cohort. Geithman said it was important to tend to the students' emotional well-being as well as their physical.
"Our commitment has been to look at both of those negative impacts of Covid," Geithman said. "How can we counteract and overcome it to keep kids safe here at school physically but also to maintain those social emotional connections that they need?"
Some three thousand students returned to in-person classes in Marin County this week. Many of them were in Larkspur-Corte Madera which operates two elementary schools and a middle school.
At Hall Middle School, the district was rotating its 500 students through two daily shifts in the morning and afternoon. Even with the in-person schooling, students were each still doing two periods of virtual learning a day at home.
Binder said as strange as all the changes were, perhaps the strangest feeling was just being back on campus.
"I felt more normal than I thought it would," Binder said. "But then I have to take a step back and say 'wow, I'm actually back at school."