KEENE, Texas — It had been almost five months since kids had walked the halls of any Keene ISD school and superintendent Ricky Stephens missed them.
“You know, we left on March 19 and said, ‘See you after spring break!’” Stephens said.
Tuesday, he finally saw them again.
Keene ISD was one of the first districts in North Texas to start the 2020-2021 school year.
Godley ISD, about 20 miles northwest of Keene, also started Tuesday.
“I’ve been waking up a lot of mornings at 5 a.m., 4 a.m., or 3 a.m., thinking of the things I had to take care of,” admitted Godley ISD superintendent Rich Dear.
But on Tuesday, he said everything went as planned.
“I’ve heard some say it’s the best first day ever,” Dear said.
Stephens said he hadn’t been losing sleep over the first day, “but that’s not to say that when my alarm went off at 5:15 this morning my motor didn’t start going 100 miles an hour," he admitted.
Keene and Godley are about an hour southwest of Dallas in Johnson County.
Johnson County has recorded more than 1,500 cases of COVID and nine deaths in its since March, meaning coronavirus is present in the county, but it isn’t as widespread as it is in Dallas or Tarrant Counties.
Godley ISD’s boundaries stretch into Hood and Tarrant Counties.
Keene ISD’s enrollment is around 1,000. Godley is slightly more, at about 2,400.
Both districts offered families an option of in-person or online learning, and both estimate about 80 percent of families chose to send their children back to class.
“With the absence of a cure or vaccine in the next month or two, we really didn’t see the difference in starting today, tomorrow or the next week because the health issue is not gonna go away," Stephens said. "But we knew the mental issues are very prevalent."
Teachers and administrators across Texas worry students have suffered educationally and emotionally during the pandemic.
“Let’s face it - our teachers save lives every day,” Dear said.
“They are trained. They can see a kid in crisis a mile away. They can give them a hug, a pat on the back, or a kind word that student needs to help them through the day. The kids need that.”
But bringing thousands of students back to campus amidst a global pandemic presents countless challenges.
Both districts shared pictures and videos of students in cafeterias and classrooms wearing masks and social distancing while teachers wore face shields and sanitized desks and tables.
“We don’t want our teachers to be the disciplinarians on face masks,” Stephens said. “We want it to be more that they comply because they know how important it is.”
Stephens and Dear said this week will focus on building relationships first so that safety protocols become second nature.
“We defeat the mental health purpose if they come here and they feel like they’re still in isolation,” Stephens said.
“Outside of the masks, it’s almost like a normal day,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Kids are still kids. They’re still smiling at you. You can’t see their mouth or teeth. But you can see it in their eyes.”